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The ‘front door’ to health: The widening role of community pharmacy

What more can be done to help community pharmacy realise its potential, asks Steve Brownett-Gale as part of a series on the sector's future

The Health Foundation projects 9.1 million adults in the UK will be living with a major illness by 2040, which can mainly be attributed to the ageing population. But the incidence of chronic and long-term illnesses in younger cohorts is also on the rise, growing from three million in 2019 to a projected 3.5m by 2030. As a result, demand for medical treatment is outpacing capacity and adding pressure to the NHS, which is being squeezed in many directions. 


Read more: Pharmacists more trusted than doctors, UK-wide survey finds


Additionally, recent research commissioned by the Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation highlighted an estimated 5.4m people are more health anxious since the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating the already high demand for GP appointments.


This article will explore the widening role of community pharmacy within the context of current NHS challenges, increasing patient demand and changing health trends. 



Public support



Public appetite for expanding pharmacy services is growing. According to an Ipsos poll from last year, 90% of people with a minor illness would be comfortable seeing a pharmacist on the same day.


Equally, Ipsos found most people had not visited or contacted a pharmacy frequently in the preceding 12 months, suggesting awareness of the broader services already offered by community pharmacies is limited. 


Read more: NHSE to ‘explore’ shortened medical degree programme for pharmacists


Community pharmacy and general practice can collaborate to boost public awareness. Displaying flyers, posters and video graphics in GP surgeries and pharmacy shopfronts will educate the public and influence future behaviour when accessing healthcare. Recommendations from GP practices can also endorse the expertise of community pharmacists for those who aren’t already convinced.


The benefits of pharmacy care also make it an attractive alternative to visiting a GP in some instances. Pharmacies stay open late and on weekends, there is no need to book an appointment, access to treatment for minor conditions is faster, and any information shared is completely confidential. 



More responsibility



The number of people on waiting lists has increased from 2.34m in 2009 to over 7m today, bringing fresh vigour to the debate around over-burdened NHS services and the role community pharmacies can play to lessen it. 


In 2021, it was announced that pharmacies nationwide would be offering blood pressure checks to citizens over the age of 40.


And in June 2022, Amanda Pritchard, the chief executive of NHS England (NHSE), announced community pharmacies would receive funding towards spotting early signs of cancer, meaning patients could access additional care without first seeing a GP.


Read more: The award-winning pharmacist revolutionising cancer care


More recently, NHSE announced the government will be investing an additional £645m into community pharmacy to fund a national Pharmacy First scheme, which is already proving successful in Scotland and Wales. 


This approach aims to lessen the burden on general practice, allowing pharmacists to prescribe medicines for seven common conditions including impetigo, earache, sinusitis, sore throat, shingles, infected insect bites and uncomplicated urinary tract infections. 


If Pharmacy First is successfully implemented alongside greater expansion in pharmacist prescribed oral contraception and blood pressure services, NHSE believes this could save 10m GP appointments a year, once scaled.



Rising pressures 



Amid rising pressure on community pharmacies to offer more services to more people, debate at a policy level is ramping up. A key focus is also on how the sector can be better integrated into the wider healthcare system.


While there is a lot to gain for all stakeholders, including patients, in moving towards a pharmacy-first approach to healthcare, many challenges need to be overcome to support the sector to deliver high quality and quick access to services.


Read more: ‘Deeply frustrating’: CPE slams frozen flu funding amid possible delays to service


Last year, Labour MP Peter Dowd argued increased funding for community pharmacy will save the NHS money in future because the prevention of illness makes both financial and ethical sense instead of retrospectively treating disease and illness.  


But delivering this vision will require a new approach. Funding gaps, rising rents and operating costs, workforce issues and supply complexities all need to be addressed for this vision to become reality.


A survey conducted last year by Community Pharmacy England (CPE), then known as the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), revealed 90% of pharmacies are spending less time with patients and only 34% believe they would have the scope to take on more services.


More recently, CPE and patient groups went to parliament to highlight ongoing concerns about medicines supply to MPs in light of disruptions causing problems both accessing medicines and procuring them cost-effectively. 


Read more: Revealed: 300 Boots branch closures to begin this month


There’s also the issue of mass closures within the sector as businesses feel the economic squeeze. Boots and Lloydspharmacy are the latest big players to announce their plans to shut down branches across the UK.


Despite this undulating backdrop of a strained NHS, intensifying debate, and pharmacy closures, there is still hope for the Pharmacy First service to be successful.


A positive outcome will lie in optimising access to medicines, enhancing medicines safety and reducing wastage, alongside paving the way for personalised healthcare and pharmacogenomics – topics I will explore in the next article in this series.


Steve Brownett-Gale is marketing lead at Origin – a company specialising in pharmaceutical packaging solutions


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