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Pharmacy’s switch to services demands a digital overhaul to succeed


Pharmacy’s switch to services demands a digital overhaul to succeed

Pharmacy First is not the only challenge facing contractors in England. Digital transformation also presents issues in adapting to new service delivery models, says Santosh Sahu

Britain’s 11,700 high street pharmacies are set to play a key role in clearing the NHS backlog. The Government’s flagship Pharmacy First framework is rolling out across the UK, significantly increasing the number of health conditions pharmacists can prescribe for and expanding the scope of their responsibilities. 

Yet its implementation comes at a time when the independent pharmacy sector is in crisis – marked by funding cuts, workforce pressures, pandemic-induced challenges, lagging digital transformation, and medicines shortages. Since 2016, one in eight UK independent pharmacies have folded and, in an age of rising prices, hundreds more may soon follow. Community pharmacies have been hit with an eight per cent rise in medicines and medical equipment; many simply do not have the cash reserves to absorb this extra cost. Not even the larger pharmacy groups are immune, as the disappearance of LloydsPharmacy from the high street demonstrates.

The benefits of small, family run community pharmacies are plentiful, but the problems they face are too – opportunities for investment, upgrades and expansion don’t come often. Internal systems within pharmacies often rely on antiquated paper-based record keeping, making everything from prescriptions to payroll arduous and time-consuming. Few have much of an online presence, which perhaps contributes to the fact that only 13 per cent of the public know about the full range of services on offer at their local pharmacy. Many find it difficult to hire and retain enough staff, leading to high workloads and employee shortages. The pandemic was the last straw for many local pharmacies, as they were met with a raft of new pressures, like supply chain disruptions, increased service demands and changing regulations, exacerbated by cuts to Government subsidies for local pharmacies.

The sector is undergoing a digital transformation, but pharmacies face challenges in adapting to new service delivery models. Shortages of essential medicines are a concern, linked to global supply chain disruptions and increased demand during the pandemic. These factors are contributing to a crisis in the UK pharmacy sector.

Pharmacy First will enable pharmacists to address and prescribe medication for ailments such as sore throat, shingles, and women’s urinary tract infections. While this will undoubtedly free up valuable time for Britain’s beleaguered hospitals and GPs, the context given above paints a picture of a pharmacy sector that is not ready for the surge of patient demand that is set to come its way. Not all is lost, however. It will only take a few key changes to the sector to ensure the British high street pharmacy is revived and able to meet the challenge of Pharmacy First. 

Funding is one of the main priorities for reform. Pharmacies need additional resources, such as fridges for antibiotics storage, but are currently unable to afford these investments. To address this, the Government has promised to provide £645 million in funding to support pharmacies in their expanded role. While this is a positive starting point, it does not account for annual inflation, and it’s crucial that the funds are delivered quickly.

Secondly, pharmacies require a technological upgrade. For Pharmacy First to thrive, the use of paper records and stuffed filing cabinets needs to be phased out. Adopting technology to digitise medical records and prescriptions would reduce the administrative burden, allowing staff to prioritise patient care. Online consultations, digital booking systems and utilising social media for advertising would attract new customers and enhance public awareness of the services offered by local pharmacies. Pharmacists need to be empowered and supported to ensure their workloads are manageable. The demands placed on pharmacists are already huge. Providing incentives for training and development as well as competitive salaries would attract and retain qualified individuals in the field.

Collaboration between pharmacies and other healthcare providers is essential. Strengthening communication and coordination between pharmacists, doctors and other professionals improves patient care and ensures that all aspects of a patient’s health are considered.

Pharmacy First is an initiative based on the idea of sharing the patient load amongst our healthcare professionals – so it needs the support of a fully functioning and communicative NHS to thrive. 

Lastly, public awareness of the services offered by local pharmacies needs to be increased. The rollout of Pharmacy First only matters if people know about it. It’s the job of the Government, healthcare professionals, pharmacies themselves and businesses like Charac to promote the initiative – because adoption and behaviour change only comes after people have been educated about its benefits.

In an ideal world, community pharmacies would serve as the first point of contact for patients seeking treatment, taking increasing pressure off other frontline NHS services. With a few key reforms alongside the Government’s well-intentioned rollout of Pharmacy First – including more funding, technological upgrades, pharmacist support, increased collaboration and public awareness – the true impact of Pharmacy First can be felt.

Santosh Sahu is Founder and CEO of pharmacy tech platform Charac:

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