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Audit shows community pharmacy's value

Jeremy Meader says community pharmacy teams have yet again shown their capability in the face of continued pressure

The 2022 pharmacy advice audit conducted by the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee in England is worthy of note. Some 4,139 community pharmacies – a sizeable proportion of all the pharmacies in England – took part over the Winter, recording more than 82,000 interventions. 

The data suggests that, on average, a community pharmacy consults with 19.2 patients per day, while across the total population of 10,800, pharmacy teams are carrying out 1.2 million consultations per week, or almost 65m per year – an increase from the 2021 figure of 58m.

This impressive figure demonstrates the growing trust and value that people place in their local pharmacy. It sends a clear message to policymakers that the pharmacy network is one that requires and deserves further investment in order to meet patient demand.

However, it was disappointing that the tabloids chose to ignore the pharmacy first message and instead chose to report this as an 'NHS in crisis' story; that people were turning to their local pharmacist simply because they could not get an appointment with their GP. 

This is utter nonsense. It portrays the sector as some kind of poor relation and a second class service in comparison to GPs. It does a grave disservice to hard-working pharmacy teams who are dedicated to supporting their patients.

Most people understand that their GP is not always the most appropriate healthcare professional to turn to for advice. They value the access community pharmacy offers and they know if the pharmacy team have any concerns they will flag those with the patient’s GP. 

Those early interventions can be literally lifesaving, which is why I welcome the new cancer referral pilot. Most people visit their local pharmacy far more often than their GP surgery, creating more opportunities for concerning symptoms to be spotted at an earlier stage.

The role of community pharmacy as a vital element of primary care should not be casually dismissed or undermined. GPs are struggling with growing demand from a growing elderly population with long-term chronic conditions while trying to tackle the Covid healthcare backlog at the same time.

"it was disappointing that the tabloids... instead chose to report this as an 'NHS in crisis' story"

Pharmacy has a critical role to play in meeting the healthcare needs of the population, as we have seen with the development of the Pharmacy First service in Scotland, action to promote the role of pharmacy in Wales and the former Westminster health secretary’s recent announcement of a review of primary care with community pharmacy at the forefront.

The pandemic surely put to bed outdated stereotypes about pharmacy simply being the place where you pick up medicines prescribed by your GP. Many people experienced, perhaps for the first time, the range of professional healthcare services available and, of course, NHS 111 and GPs are referring an increasing number of people to community pharmacy. The tabloids should take note. 

Patient expectation and experience has changed and is changing. A recent survey found that half of all GPs in England intend to retire at 60, if not before, with many considering working reduced hours before they retire. The ‘access to a GP’ complaint is going to be with us for many more years, which has to mean beefing up and investing in the community pharmacy network. 

Governments in Scotland and Wales understand this, but England is once again late to the game. The sector in England faces funding austerity and, as a result, it is shrinking, even while it is continually being asked to do more. This is not sustainable.  

It is time to recognise that the pharmacy contract in England is no longer relevant to today’s national healthcare needs: circumstances have changed dramatically since it was agreed just three years ago. If the next two years bring yet more pharmacy and GP surgery closures – which sadly looks inevitable – there should be a lot of unhappy voters at the next general election. More importantly, our NHS will fail to meet its healthcare improvement targets.

Jeremy Meader is managing director of Numark

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