Taking a wider view on winter

Mike Smith puts the world to rights…

Remember those record-breaking temperatures of Halloween? Well, that may seem a long time ago now, with the heating switched on to maximum and many of us suffering from winter colds or flu.

Since November, Public Health England (PHE) and the Met Office have operated a cold weather alert system. Alerts are based on four levels: from level one, the minimum state of vigilance, during which time social and healthcare services ensure that there is ongoing awareness and preparedness, to level four, when severe and/or prolonged cold weather is expected and may cause health effects even among the fit and healthy, and not just in high-risk groups. You can see the current level of concern by visiting the cold weather alert at www.metoffice.gov.uk.

Even if we are lucky enough to be at level one when you read this, it is worth every pharmacy considering how it can keep people well this winter. According to PHE, more than 25,000 extra people die in England over the winter period and many of these deaths are preventable if only people took wheezes, coughs and sneezes more seriously, particularly if they are very young, old and/or frail. Among the advice points being offered are:

  • Have the flu vaccine if you’re eligible
  • Heat your home to at least 18°C to minimise the risk to health. If heating the whole house is a problem, heat the living room during the day and your bedroom just before you go to sleep
  • Wear a few layers of thin clothing rather than one thick layer, and when you need to go outside wear shoes with slip-resistant, good-grip soles
  • Have all gas, solid fuel and oil burning appliances (ie boilers, heaters, cookers) serviced by a registered engineer
  • Undertake energy efficiency improvements to your home or encourage your landlord to do so
  • Look out for older friends and neighbours, those with existing health conditions and young children
  • Insulate water pipes to prevent them freezing. PHE advertises local pharmacies as a go-to place for winter health advice. But how well would you respond if a customer came in to ask about energy efficiency improvements or wanted information about heating benefits for their elderly parent? Would you feel like joking that the customer ‘should’ve gone to Specsavers?’.

Yet, providing this kind of innovative, holistic package of care is exactly what the NHS means when it says integrated health and social care – and it’s what it now wants to see from all its service providers.

North-east London pharmacies have responded to this challenge and, from April, will be rolling out the new self-care pharmacy practice model. Participating pharmacies will position themselves as a community hub, offering advice and help within their (specially extended) competence, but also referring people to advice and support in areas where they are not equipped to help, and ensuring there is follow-up on the cases they have referred.

However, two surgeries in South Devon have recently been castigated for daring to suggest that people with minor ailments should visit their pharmacy instead. We still have a long, long way to go to establish pharmacy as the first port of call.

Perhaps, part of the reason why people do not see their pharmacist as the first port of call for health and wellbeing – and seem to prefer to sit in a virus-infested GP waiting room alongside all the other antibiotic wannabes – is that people do not realise just how much help and advice their community pharmacist actually can offer.

So, as we embrace 2015, let’s prove to our customers just how helpful and useful we can be.

Mike Smith is chairman of Alliance Healthcare, mike.h.smith@alliance-healthcare.co.uk