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Pharmacy First: On your marks


Pharmacy First: On your marks

Here it is – the service we’ve all been waiting for. Following years of clamour for a self-referral scheme in England – and a November announcement that left pharmacy teams scrambling to prepare themselves for the January 31 kick-off – Pharmacy First has arrived. You will no doubt have your otoscope at the ready to see your first batch of patients. You may even have already had your first consultation by the time you read this.

While no one at NHS England wants to go on the record about this, I understand that a public awareness campaign is going to hit our screens and social media feeds this month, potentially driving a lot of patients to your doors. Good luck!

I suspect that many of our readers will have moments of Pharmacy First fatigue in the months to come, as other issues like the mess that is our medicines reimbursement system get bumped down the agenda and it seems like The Service is the only show in town.

But its significance cannot be overstated. As LPC chief Shilpa Shah tells me in our lead article, for the first time, there will be concrete funding structures in place to back up the oft-repeated message that the public should use pharmacies as their first port of call for minor ailments. The seven conditions included in Pharmacy First give teams an opportunity to demonstrate just how much the NHS needs them, with more conditions potentially being added in the future.

There are already issues that could hinder service delivery, and more are bound to emerge in the months to come. The Pharmacists’ Defence Association surveyed more than 3,500 pharmacists in January, finding that most were concerned that staffing levels in their pharmacies were too low to safely deliver existing services, let alone a new and transformative service capped at a whopping 3,000 consultations per month from April.

The pharmacists I speak to in our lead feature say that while the funding attached to Pharmacy First is welcome, it’s not going to subsidise new staff members any time soon. Our leaders and policymakers need to be paying attention to this; if staffing is not addressed properly, there can be no transformation.

They must also take on board the feedback of the teams delivering the service, as well as their patients. I was impressed by the remarks of Bristol contractor Ade Williams, who told me that Pharmacy First must be viewed as a population-level study and that any hiccoughs should be identified and ironed out in this first year of the service.

As we head into this first phase, the prevailing mood must be one of optimism. Whatever challenges the next few months bring, I have full confidence that England’s pharmacies will rise to the occasion, just as they did during the pandemic. Let’s just hope that whoever is running the Treasury a year from now recognises that.

As Williams puts it: “What motivates me is the idea that if we deliver this, we can then argue: This is what community pharmacy can do. If you invest in us to create a sustainable structure, it won’t be a handout but part of an ongoing mutual commitment.”

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