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Is Pharmacy First addressing the sector's root challenges?

After six months of anticipation, the Pharmacy First launch date has finally been announced – C+D’s Zainab Hussain shares her thoughts

Upon joining C+D and subscribing to the happenings of the pharmacy sector, I couldn’t help but notice that it is facing a lot of challenges. Through working closely with pharmacists and other pharmacy professionals, I’ve come to realise that things aren’t as simple as they seemed…

It all started during the COVID-19 pandemic, when community pharmacy – and I quote a lot of professionals saying this to me – really proved to the government (and the public) through rolling out COVID-19 jabs, that it is a fundamental cog in the healthcare system by providing health services and protecting the public.

With pressure on GPs like never before, more patients are turning to their local community pharmacies for advice and the upcoming Pharmacy First service aspires to expand on that.

Read more: How to optimise the COVID-19 vaccination service in your pharmacy

However, if the government does recognise just how important the role of community pharmacy is, why were there technical challenges in rolling out the COVID-19 jabs this year? The pharmacists that I spoke to were incredibly excited to be connecting to their communities and supporting them but were faced with unnecessary challenges around funding and capacity.

It’s been quite a year for community pharmacies, with multiples including Lloydspharmacy withdrawing (and closing down) pharmacy services from all 237 Sainsbury’s stores.

While attending the Pharmacy Show in October, I was audience to the specialist pharmacy accountants, Hutchings Accountants, explaining the reason behind why there was a hike in pharmacy sales this year.

There here had been a 104% year-on-year increase in completed sales compared to the same period last year; and a 202% increase in new buyer registration in Q1 of 2023 compared to the same quarter last year. Shocking numbers.

Read more: Pharmacy First funding breakdown: Upfront, monthly and consultation fees

As exciting as it is to see some pharmacists getting their feet off the ground, I can’t turn away from the fact that on the flip side of the coin; there are increasing numbers of pharmacy closures.

While reading some of the lovely submissions I receive for the opinion section for C+D, along with engaging with pharmacists at The Pharmacy Show, Clinical Pharmacy Congress North (CPC North) – and, of course, our C+D Community – there are several recurring themes. These include struggles around funding, technology, and time management.

Time and time again, I hear the words, “we’re just so overrun and busy”. How will pharmacists be able to take on the additional responsibilities now put forward to them by the government’s Pharmacy First scheme?

Read more: Launch dates announced for Pharmacy First and contraception services

There’s also the issue around independent prescribing (IP). I remember speaking to a certain professional, who said that pharmacists go to university to do so much more than just dispensing. From that perspective, IP seems like a wonderful practice to take on at your community pharmacy.

Potentially, pharmacists could be making more money, taking pressure off GPs and further engaging with the patients in their community. But then the question arises: With the lack of available designated prescribing practitioners (DPPs), combined with all the other challenges I’ve described, are we just adding more to their plates?

Anecdotally, a pharmacist said that the additional services put forward by Pharmacy First is taking away from their “valuable time”. And while attending a talk at CPC North, one pharmacist asked how they could be expected to take on more responsibilities, when they’re struggling to employ help at their community pharmacy. From that perspective, could we really speak for someone if we don’t do their day-to-day job?

Read more: Are you ready for Pharmacy First? Deadlines for upfront cash announced

To add to that, GP chiefs have come out and said that pharmacists are “not a substitute” for GPs in the wake of the Pharmacy First announcement. And Community Pharmacy England (CPE) also revealed that its bid for an increase to the pharmacy contraception service fee was “rejected” by the government and NHS England (NHSE). How and why is the government expecting so much from a sector that’s constantly being undermined?

In essence, there needs to be more acknowledgement of the hard work community pharmacies undergo every day to support their patients. With that, we should take into account the challenges they’re facing and provide long-term solutions that will support them in the way that they want and need to be supported. More frontline players to the issue need to be heard, and that is why we are always welcoming opinion submissions at C+D from community pharmacists.

The Pharmacy First service is aspirational, but I echo the National Pharmacy Association’s (NPA) chair, Nick Kaye. He said that the Pharmacist First announcement will “not in itself solve the financial crisis in community pharmacy”, and that many independent pharmacies will still be “operating at a loss” despite the funding injection. And as the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp) chief executive, Dr Leyla Hannbeck, put it, the “success of these services will very much depend on the level of red tape and whether pharmacists’ time is compensated appropriately”.

Zainab Hussain is the features assistant and Community reporter at C+D

If you want to have your say on this, or any other community pharmacy topic, please get in touch with [email protected]

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