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‘Where’s the government strategy to combat pharmacy’s acute workforce crisis?’

Pharmacy needs cross-sectoral co-ordination, as well as concerted investment in capability and capacity to avoid this burgeoning workforce crisis, says Rowlands superintendent Margaret MacRury

Pharmacy is being transformed at a pace we have never experienced since the inception of the NHS in 1948. We should welcome that and embrace the new opportunities it will undoubtedly unlock, but successful change on this scale only happens when it is backed by a robust, well thought through national workforce strategy and vision.

Governments across the UK are seeking to employ more pharmacists in GP/health authority settings; they want to upskill more community pharmacists to provide even more patient services including independent prescribing. The public – perhaps as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – increasingly understands that their local pharmacy can provide services, support and advice and not just dispense medication. Furthermore, GPs are increasingly being incentivised to refer patients to their local pharmacy.

As a result, demand for pharmacists and pharmacy technicians has never been greater. On a positive note, we should welcome that as recognition of pharmacy’s increasing importance at the beating heart of our national healthcare services.

Looking forward, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians can and should benefit from career paths that enable them to develop valuable clinical experience across multiple sectors, which will improve patient care and healthcare outcomes. Funding for training is being made available and that is welcome, but again, the fundamental question is: what is the workforce strategy upon which such funding is based? Where is it being directed to best effect?

Currently, we are witnessing a “rob Peter to pay Paul” approach, with sectors competing with each other for scarce people resources. That does nothing to improve patient care. It is a zero-sum game, which, if anything, acts as an impediment to improving patient care. Community pharmacy now faces an acute workforce crisis that will only get worse as primary care networks (PCNs), integrated care systems and health boards seek to recruit yet more pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. It is a statement of the obvious that there is no point referring a patient to their local community pharmacy if there is no pharmacist there to advise and support them.

In England, PCNs plan to recruit more than 7,000 pharmacists by 2024: where are these going to come from? Pharmacists are now listed on the Home Office’s ‘shortage occupation list’: surely that is a clear warning sign that there is a severe workforce problem that needs sorting out.

This is not and should never be a “them” versus “us” debate. Rather, it is about starting with the patient and providing easy access to the pharmaceutical care they need at the right time in the right place. It is about developing new rewarding cross-sectoral career paths for pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. It is about driving up standards of care, not rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

If our governments get this right, I can see great opportunities for our profession. It needs vision. It needs funding. It needs cross-sectoral co-ordination. We need not just investment in capability, but commensurate investment in capacity.

Margaret MacRury is superintendent director at Rowlands Pharmacy, Phoenix Medical Supplies.

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