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PCNs: Golden opportunity or just a pain in the ARRS for community pharmacy?

Community pharmacy is smarting from its workforce's migration into primary care jobs. But is the additional roles reimbursement scheme (ARRS) to blame, asks Beth Kennedy

How many pharmacists does it take to run a successful PCN? No, it’s not the start of a terrible dad joke, but a question I’ve been asking myself since last week (April 4), when a government review suggested that pharmacist recruitment into primary care networks (PCNs) had “exacerbated” community pharmacy closures.

Read more: Pharmacy closures 'exacerbated' by PCN recruitment, warns government review

The independent inquiry concluded that hiring pharmacists into PCNs via the ARRS is only adding to a shortage of pharmacists, in turn “compounding the problem of community pharmacy closures”.

This only confirmed what many pharmacy owners and sector leaders have been saying for months, that the ARRS has become nothing but a pain in the proverbial as the community sector struggles to meet patient demand with a beleaguered and swiftly diminishing workforce.

Catch up on C+D’s 10th Big Debate, which asked: What needs to be done to make community pharmacy a more attractive career prospect?

And I can see their point. Some 4,300 PCN roles for pharmacists and a further 1,400 roles for pharmacy technicians had been created as of the end of February. Many of these people will have come from jobs in community pharmacy – traditionally the profession’s biggest employer.

None of this is to say that the ARRS is necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, the scheme presents pharmacists and technicians with fresh job opportunities and the potential for a portfolio career, as well as strengthening inter-professional links with other healthcare workers such as GPs, physiotherapists and nurses.

All of this is to be welcomed, which is why this year’s C+D Awards has introduced a brand-new category to shine a light on pharmacists who are making waves in PCNs or GP surgeries.

Read more: ‘Short-sighted at best’: PSNC blasts recruitment of 4k PCN pharmacists

But I can’t help but worry that the lure of PCNs will continue to tempt pharmacy workers away from more traditional roles on the high street. It’s difficult to paint community pharmacy as a desirable career option right now, what with rising workloads and, in many cases, a dangerous level of understaffing. Continued PCN recruitment could arguably only add to these issues.

Many people wiser than I have made the point that it’s up to pharmacy professionals themselves to choose where they work and that it’s community pharmacy employers’ prerogative to make jobs more attractive. 

I don’t disagree. But when community pharmacy’s funding situation is such that even behemoths like Lloydspharmacy, formerly a dominant force in the sector, are reportedly struggling to keep the lights on, it’s difficult to see how.

Read more: All Lloydspharmacy branches reportedly ‘at risk’ of closure

Ensuring there are enough pharmacists to work across primary care – be that in community pharmacies, PCNs or GP surgeries – to mean that each setting can function properly can only be a good thing for patients. It shouldn’t be a case of either/or – and it doesn’t have to be. 

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the current community pharmacy funding model in England seems to have resulted in. It seems unlikely that a deep well of funding to magically sort out all of community pharmacy’s woes will appear any time soon, as much as we might wish for one.

Read more: Primary care recovery plan: Barclay wants pharmacists to do 'even more'

But it seems fair to expect the upcoming primary care recovery plan, the publication of which has been expected any day now for what seems like months, to make strides in addressing these problems.

The government's vision for pharmacy's future has, to me, seemed opaque at best for years now, seeming mainly to be centered around keeping costs down rather than making sure pharmacy professionals, our medicines experts, can do what they do best.

The recovery plan, then, presents the perfect opportunity to do just that, ultimately offering battle-weary pharmacists reasons to stay in a profession that has left many on the brink of burnout.

It’s not too much to ask, is it?

Beth Kennedy is editor of C+D

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