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The pharmacy revolutionising hub-and-spoke dispensing

The C+D-Award-winning AR Pharmacy is pushing forwards with a new way to use automation, prompting a renewed focus on services

“There’s a lot of negativity around pharmacy at the moment with funding, etc, which is true – I do think there needs to be some sort of review,” says James Tibbs. “But I think there’s massive opportunity as well.”

This mixture of pragmatism and positivity is typical of the owner of Southampton’s AR Pharmacy. With a sharp mind for business and a hunger for expansion, James exudes a get-up-and-go attitude and willingness not only to embrace change but to make it work to his advantage.

It’s little wonder, then, that James and his team were awarded the prize for Business Innovation of the Year at the C+D Awards 2023. The judges commended his truly pioneering business model, which used hub-and-spoke dispensing for just one pharmacy, freeing up time to deliver clinical services and increasing dispensing volume.

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And much has changed for James since picking up the trophy last September. In another move demonstrating his ability to make the most of changes within the sector, James snapped up several pharmacies from the now-defunct Lloydspharmacy chain. The business has grown from a single branch to a group of six – and there are further plans for expansion. “My plan is to get to 10 or 13 pharmacies in the next year or so,” he tells C+D over the phone on a gloriously sunny May afternoon.

With his ability to make the best of almost any situation, it seems a sure thing that he’ll reach this ambitious goal. And while he’s the first to admit that there’s “a lot of uncertainty” within community pharmacy right now, he says this is often when he is at his most innovative. “I’m a survivor, basically,” he says. “I want to succeed and it will be survival of the fittest, to be honest. I think people need to understand that; that if you want to survive, you’ve got to fight for it.”


Clinically focussed


For James, putting his best foot forward as a pharmacy owner has involved focusing on clinical services. While he says his team has “always been incredibly hot on private services”, he points out that they have been able to offer more NHS services as a result of bringing in hub-and-spoke dispensing.

With his typical cheerfulness, he points out that the pharmacy should by rights be remunerated better for NHS services, although he hasn’t let that deter him. “I don’t think we get paid enough for what we do, to be perfectly honest. But it’s what we’ve got and we’ve got to make the most of it,” he says.

Read more: 'The problem within the profession is'... shining a light on pharmacy technicians

And make the most of it, they certainly do at AR Pharmacy. With a comprehensive list of services ranging from hepatitis C testing to a travel clinic and a healthy living service, there’s a lot for patients to choose from. “Everything – you name it,” says James.

He says: “When I first started, I was very services driven then the [dispensing] volume started increasing, and there was more admin, more legalities you have to do and things. That kind of held me back a bit, if anything, so when the automation kicked in – when we invested in it – that was when it really freed me up again and I can [now] go on to the next step on my business journey.”

Having run the family-owned pharmacy himself for about 14 years, James has borne witness to many changes in the profession. “It’s definitely got busier,” he says. “The pressure on us is a lot bigger, doing more services and things like that.”

Read more: The GP pharmacist with a prescription for success

One of the biggest developments for community pharmacy in England over the past few years has been the introduction of the Pharmacy First service, which finally screeched into being (with a few bumps along the way) at the end of January. For James, this move has been a welcome one. “Pharmacy First is for pharmacy, I think, the most important service for a long time,” he muses. “I think it’s the gateway to us becoming almost like mini-GPs. So, I think it’s a very positive thing.”


Out with the old


Another positive for James has been the implementation of the hub-and-spoke system in the pharmacy, which was brought in “about a year and a half ago now”. James says: “When we won the award, it was quite fresh. It took us a good six months to get it embedded properly and iron it out, so I would say we’ve been using it properly for the last year. But every week we are using it more and more.”

The advantages are clear. “This really does free me up,” says James. “We had never thought about expanding and that’s allowed us to think, d’you know what, actually, we could be doing this in other places. We’re delivering a great service, we should be doing this more for other pharmacies.”

Read more: Menopause? Meet the award-winning private pharmacy throwing menopausal women a lifeline

He continues: “We’ve been growing quite quickly in quite a short space of time since winning the award. But it doesn’t scare me, whereas before the thought of having another pharmacy was like –” he breaks off, unable to put into words how daunting the idea was. “[That was] because were so busy, whereas now I don’t feel that pressure anymore.”

But he points out that a hub-and-spoke model also has other elements to “factor in”. This includes logistics and the cost of petrol. “I know we can do it at scale and I know a lot of companies do – but it just cuts into your margins so much I think you have to keep it quite local in my opinion,” he says.


Shouting out the team


Key to AR Pharmacy’s success, as James is keen to point out, is the dedication of the team working there. While there has been a good deal of attrition over the past few years, there are still around 20 staff working at the pharmacy. “But we did have 30 and we’re doing about 8,000 more items – we’re doing almost 50,000 items now just on this one site,” says James. “So even though it’s 20 staff, 50,000 items and doing loads of different services as well is pretty good going.”

So how did it feel to be recognised at the C+D Awards 2023? “Amazing,” he says immediately. James is no stranger to the C+D Awards stage himself, having been named Community Pharmacist of the Year in 2021.

Read more: The award-winning community pharmacist leading the charge for DSPs

But while the awards shelf is already groaning under the weight of this and a slew of other national prizes, there was something different this time. James explains: “It’s always been a real team effort but especially [for this award] because it was really tough to get that change embedded. It was a completely different way of working and it really relied on the team – that’s why I felt so proud.

“I’ve always felt proud of everybody, obviously, but this one especially, it felt really special. We’ve worked really, really hard to get [hub and spoke] to work, so it was a great thing for the team.”

So now their C+D award sits proudly in a staff-only area upstairs at the pharmacy. “All of our awards we keep downstairs, normally,” James explains. “But this one, because it’s so special, we keep it out as a constant reminder for the team.

“It's sort of like keeping it on your shelf at home.”

Read more: The university schooling its students on equality, diversity and inclusion

James is a huge advocate for people entering the C+D Awards, and recommends doing so without delay. “Thing is, pharmacists are historically very reserved,” he says. “They don’t want to chat about how good they are. But, actually, sometimes it’s really good to recognise your achievements and also recognise the achievements of your staff.”

As he puts it: “Even if you don’t win, being nominated is a massive achievement, so just do it. Just try and even if you don’t win that year, try again because it means a lot.”

So, take it from James; winning a C+D Award is a boost for everyone in the team. Why not take a chance and get your entry in today?


The C+D Awards 2024 will take place at The Brewery in London on September 19. Could you or one of your colleagues be crowned as a C+D Award winner? Check out all the categories for the 2024 awards and enter today.

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