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‘NHS plan for volunteers to deliver medicines is a death trap’

NHS England’s plan for well-meaning volunteers to deliver medicines for pharmacies puts patients’ lives at risk, says Mike Hewitson

Volunteer army? Great, that’s all we need.

I really hate it when good-natured people get manipulated by those who should know better. And thus, I stand alone in my crusade against a tsunami of volunteers being pushed to do NHS England’s dirty work.

It may be a lonely position, but I am certain in my conviction that I do not want a load of well-meaning amateurs delivering medicines or coming in to collect prescriptions on behalf of others.

Chief executive of the General Pharmaceutical Council, Duncan Rudkin, a man I have a lot of time and respect for, said in an NHS England webinar on March 25 that responsible pharmacists using volunteers as set out by NHS England wouldn’t have anything to worry about if something went wrong.

It’s one view, but it’s not exactly the whole picture. While Mr Rudkin may speak on behalf of the regulator, he has no power over the courts. Be it a civil or even a criminal prosecution, he has no power to stop an angry relative, or the backlash from a community if someone were to die as a result of a mix-up with medicines.

We aren’t talking about delivering a box of vegetables: get the wrong medicine to the wrong patient and they might die. People have lost their lives as a result of delivery errors. While it is absolutely correct that pharmacists should make their own professional decisions about what corners they’re comfortable in cutting, I would suggest that using volunteers to deliver medicines has potential ramifications.

I’m the councillor for a ward in South Somerset. I can tell you that the management of volunteers is a real art. Without the motivation of payment you’re really only relying on the goodwill of the individual. It doesn’t matter how you train them or what instructions you give, volunteers will do what they want.

In short, the scheme that NHS England has dreamt up is nothing short of a death trap. Whether someone delivers the wrong medicines, the right ones at the wrong time, or doesn’t deliver them at all, there are risks to the reputation of the pharmacy. When it all washes out, nobody is going to remember that it was a volunteer driver, just that the pharmacy provided an unsafe service.

Another big risk is that volunteers could give advice when people see them delivering medicines. The patient might ask “how do I take these?” Or “are these safe with my other medicines?” There have been very real examples where that has gone seriously wrong, and if it does, you won’t have Mr Rudkin to hide behind.

My pharmacy is getting hundreds of requests for deliveries every week. It’s going to be one hell of a logistical operation staying on top of who has delivered what and where. If we don’t have a mechanism to provide management oversight, how can we say we are providing a safe service? How can we find a prescription if the patient says they haven’t received it? What happens when the patient insists that they haven’t had it and wants the medicines redelivered? Who is responsible?

Volunteers have the potential to create as much work as they solve, and it will take a full-time member of staff just to manage their deployment. Plus, every patient who walks through our doors right now presents an infection risk, so I’m not very keen about a dozen more people coming in to collect prescriptions.

These well-meaning volunteers are merely pawns in a much bigger game. NHS England appears determined to deny pharmacy any additional funding throughout this crisis. If it was acting in good faith, my feeling is that we would have seen the service specification for the national delivery service by now, more than two weeks after it was announced.

We’re in a national crisis, and I’m not buying bureaucratic excuses. I hope those civil servants have their stories straight for the inevitable public inquiry that will examine this strange period.

We’re in exceptional times, and this means were all going beyond normal business continuity measures. The five-year pharmacy funding contract was already insufficient before all of this kicked off, so how can we be expected to maintain a service without the resources we need to keep patients and staff safe?

Mike Hewitson owns Beaminster Pharmacy in Dorset

The GPhC declined to respond to this article. C+D has asked NHS England for its reaction

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