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‘Bring community pharmacy to the table and treat it with the respect it deserves’

NHS England's (NHSE) new minor illness campaign will only pile more work onto community pharmacy teams. So why wasn't the sector given prior warning, asks Leyla Hannbeck

NHSE's minor ailments “help us, help you” advertising campaign, which launched earlier this week, is to be welcomed. Of course it is. Who wouldn't appreciate a drive to encourage more people to go to their local community pharmacy with a minor ailment rather than clogging up a hospital A&E department or a GP’s time?

Read more: PSNC blasts ‘irresponsible’ NHSE pharmacy minor ailments campaign

Given the current state of the health service, it’s a no brainer – a move that would help alleviate severe pressures elsewhere. It would be playing to the strengths, too, of our pharmacists, who undergo robust clinical training for five years at university but then see aspects of their knowledge going underused.

Pharmacists should be able to tell if something that looks standard on the face of it may actually be more serious and, if needs be, can suggest the patient does visit A&E or contact their GP.

Pharmacies are accessible, local and they’re trusted, familiar faces – something that came to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic when they were a heavily relied upon first port of call for many people. So, it makes perfect sense for them to be deployed in this way. Except there has been little consultation – communication even – with the pharmacists themselves.

Imagine being in your place of work and virtually the first time you discover you’re being asked to do more is when you see it on a poster. You would be annoyed, wouldn’t you? Especially when the NHS has already implemented the hopelessly bureaucratic community pharmacist consultation service.

That is what has happened here. Pharmacies only found out what was expected of them via the campaign literature.

Read more: PSNC rejects ‘totally inadequate’ proposals to relieve sector pressures

There’s been no discussion with pharmacies about extra funding, what conditions they will be asked to deal with, how the referral system will operate and whether a patient’s medical record will be updated to take account of the pharmacy’s treatment.

Frankly, we do not know whether to laugh or cry. We don’t want to appear negative or churlish. But equally, we’re stressed; we can’t be expected to provide yet more work for nothing.

We’re not looking to exploit a weakness. We’re willing to assist but the days when we can afford to be out of pocket as a result are gone.

What’s particularly galling about this latest initiative is that it comes at a time when pharmacies are in crisis. There is a workforce challenge in community pharmacy, mainly caused by NHS policies.

Community pharmacies have been closing at an alarming rate, unable to cope with rising costs, mounting prescription charges, medicine shortages, difficulties in finding and retaining suitable staff, the digital boom, business rates and ever-climbing rents.

And in many cases, teams have been subjected to horrendous abuse from customers frustrated at the delays and shortages in the NHS.

Even the supermarkets are struggling to make their in-store pharmacies pay, with Tesco and Asda proposing closures and Lloydspharmacy withdrawing from Sainsbury's.

Read more: Supermarket sweep: Are large grocers falling out of love with pharmacy?

NHS managers and the government know this. We’ve been telling them for a long, long time and have not been heard. We warned officials over a year ago of the outcome workforce pressures would have – yet they pressed on, ignoring us, exactly as they are doing now with this new campaign.

It would be more appropriate if it was called “help us, help you, help your pharmacy”. But I guess that does not have the same ring to it.

Instead of springing it upon us, as they have chosen to do, NHS management should have sat down and gone through the parameters with us, explaining what they were hoping for and how we could assist in a planned, sustainable way.

They would not have found us obstructive or making unreasonable demands. Far from it – community pharmacies have a track record of delivering for the NHS.

Look at what pharmacies achieved during COVID-19, keeping their doors open throughout and delivering accessible care to the public. Is it too much to ask to be involved in discussions and be informed before additional workload lands on them?

The majority of the services independent pharmacies deliver are NHS services. Is it too much to ask to be funded appropriately – at a professional fee for the professional services that pharmacies are asked to provide – so they are not left out of pocket?

Because this is exactly where pharmacies find themselves now – overworked and out of pocket.

Many are closing their doors for good and this year could be a watershed moment. More closures will only make matters more difficult for primary care.

It is in the public’s interest for pharmacies to be fully integrated into the nation’s healthcare system, to be supplying primary care, to be delivering accessible care  – particularly in areas of health inequality – and to be treated as another pillar of the NHS, alongside hospitals and GPs.

So, NHSE, before you drop your next campaign, invite us to the table. We have a shared agenda – treat our sector with the respect it deserves and make us feel a part of it.


Leyla Hannbeck is CEO of AIMp

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