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The pros and cons: Is online pharmacy a threat to patient safety or a way to free up branch capacity?

Distance-selling pharmacies or a pharmacy's own “digital offering” could free up time within branches, but adequate safety measures must be in place to protect patients using online services, sector leaders have said. 

Pharmacies should embrace the “digital offering” available to the sector to help “free up capacity” in branches and help set community pharmacy apart from other primary care providers, the chief executive of the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) Malcolm Harrison said at a Westminster Health Forum policy event yesterday (October 12).

“The digital offering is there. Don’t be afraid of change,” he advised.

 

Medications “are not ordinary items of commerce”

 

However, General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) CEO Duncan Rudkin – who also spoke at the event – later warned of the dangers that some online digital prescribing services present, including those that “seem to forget” they should “be taking a clinical approach to their prescribing”.

It is important they remember that the medications they prescribe to patients “are not ordinary items of commerce”, he added. Some independent online prescribers fail to implement adequate safety checks, which is a “real challenge” the GPhC is tackling through inspection and enforcement work, Mr Rudkin added.

“In some cases, patients themselves may be motivated and quite adept at not enabling integration and flow of information for safety-checking purposes, because often we're talking about medicines that are liable to abuse, misuse and overuse.”

Mr Rudkin added: “Keith Ridge said famously a few years ago that the future of pharmacy was clinical and digital. One of my worries is that it seems sometimes as if it's going in the direction of being either clinical or digital.”

In August, the director of insight, intelligence and inspection at the GPhC Claire Bryce-Smith wrote to organisations representing pharmacies and pharmacy professionals to highlight the “serious patient safety concerns” the GPhC had identified relating to online prescribing services.

The letter noted that since April 2019, the GPhC had taken enforcement action against more than 40 pharmacies linked to their provision of online pharmacy services. Many of those pharmacies were working with online prescribing services that were prescribing medicines liable to abuse, misuse and overuse by people.

 

Community pharmacy “not just about patient care”

 

Also speaking about the impact digital pharmacy has on the sector, Association of Independent Multiple pharmacies CEO Leyla Hannbeck told the conference: “The package we offer in community pharmacy is not just about patient care, but it's about social care as well. If a community pharmacist is no longer there, it's not just the patient care that is affected.”

Dr Hannbeck also stressed the importance of the specialist training and knowledge medicine delivery drivers have, adding: “If community pharmacy delivery drivers are trained to deliver medicines to patients’ doors, are postmen trained the same way to deliver medicines to patients’ doors? These are the sort of things that we need to look at.”

Meanwhile, Greater Middlesbrough primary care network lead pharmacist and Knights Pharmacy superintendent pharmacist Pete Horrocks said: “If a certain proportion of the population [were to] choose to switch to online services, it would lead to closure of bricks-and-mortar [pharmacies].

“Pharmacy has got to adapt. We’ve got to change. We’ve got to offer what patients want. There’s nothing that any online pharmacy is offering that can’t be offered by bricks-and-mortar pharmacies.”

 

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