As Avicenna approaches its 20th birthday, Hannah Flynn finds CEO Salim Jetha optimistic about the future of independents and their place in the new NHS
With its 20th birthday coming up next year, Salim Jetha believes independent support group Avicenna has a long life in it yet – in line with his optimism for the future of independent pharmacy. But with an overhaul of the health service and economic pressures taking hold, the CEO also recognises there are challenges to overcome to ensure this. The significance for pharmacy of the NHS reforms was recognised at this year's Avicenna conference, entitled Navigating Change in the NHS, an attempt to educate the group's members about the implications of the health bill currently passing through Parliament.
"We have seen a high level [of] discussion taking place and pharmacists are busy with their day-to-day work. I felt that we needed to understand what implications [the health bill] would have on them," he explains to C+D. The significance of the NHS reforms is huge, Mr Jetha says, and admits that pharmacy hasn't been sufficiently involved. Avicenna has a direct role to play in terms of putting independent pharmacy's perspective forward, he says. "We need to put our voice into this NHS consultation exercise and we are going to have a few membership meetings to discuss and respond accordingly to make sure the independent voice is heard. "I do not feel at the moment that the other [pharmacy] bodies are there; they are looking at pharmacy, which is brilliant, but I think we need to look at the independent sector." But the group's other role is also to ensure members are kept up to date with the NHS reforms, Mr Jetha says. "I think our job is to navigate through this maze of regulations and changes that have taken place." Consequently, Avicenna aimed its conference at discussing what individual pharmacists themselves need to be doing to prepare for the future NHS. One of the things on their to-do list, he says – and he is certainly not the first – is to engage with GPs and the commissioning consortia that have already begun to form as part of health secretary Andrew Lansley's grand plan. Mr Jetha says pharmacists should approach their primary care colleagues and ask them which areas GPs would like help with. This, he believes, would help drive the message home that pharmacists offer more than just dispensing services. Yet a recent survey of Avicenna members found many had not yet engaged with these consortia. Mr Jetha says that much of this "might be done through LPC level", but adds that the opportunities will open up for those pharmacists who adapt most successfully to the changing NHS. And he is concerned that, though these opportunities exist, pharmacists are not yet confident enough to promote themselves to commissioners. "I think there is a lack of confidence: as we heard from the [Avicenna conference] speakers, pharmacists know what they are doing, they just lack the confidence. They have the knowledge, they have the skill, they have been doing this day in, day out – but they are not very good at recording [the results of] or marketing their services." Another challenge Mr Jetha points out – and another that has had plenty of airtime – is for pharmacists to find the time to allow them to engage with NHS reforms and the new commissioning landscape. "Firstly there are [the] challenges to relieve themselves from the administration and the regulatory work." And, again, he believes Avicenna has a role to play – and is already providing support in the form of its Ace Plus virtual chain concept, which provides head office support for members. He adds: "One of the hidden assets we have are our staff and we are embarking on an Avicenna staff training programme. "We feel that once they are trained they will feel empowered and dedicated, and they can shoulder some of the responsibility the pharmacist is taking now." If pharmacy can overcome the challenges, Mr Jetha is clear on where he believes pharmacy can fit into the future NHS, with the main opportunities lying in the cost-saving aims of the coalition government. "At the end of the day, the government wants a cost-effective service as tertiary care and secondary care are where the huge costs are," he explains. "They are trying to push secondary care cost to the GP level, which is much cheaper for them than at the hospital level. And the sort of services GPs do will be pushed down to the pharmacists if they accept the challenge. "For example, the minor ailments scheme: 16 to 18 per cent of GPs' time is spent on it, and the core spending we could save on it is absolutely tremendous. And COPD and diabetes screening offer huge opportunities." Overall, the future for independent pharmacy is bright in Mr Jetha's view – and Avicenna is backing his words with investment. Now with more than 1,000 members, the group is looking at buying its own pharmacies as part of its plans to develop the package it offers them. "We feel that if we had our own pharmacy we could test [our services] out," Mr Jetha explains. "I also think the organisation is membership-owned and it will be another form of investment for our shareholders. "We are one of the optimistic ones and we believe there is a future for pharmacy."
Who is Salim Jetha?
Before studying pharmacy, Avicenna CEO Salim Jetha took a gap year working as an accountant, to see "if that would work for me". Having decided against that career path, he studied pharmacy at Chelsea College, now part of King's College London. Mr Jetha went from graduation to Boots, where he had worked every Saturday while he studied. After a few years an opportunity arose for him to purchase a pharmacy, he applied for it – and still owns that pharmacy today. Avicenna was launched in 1992, and Mr Jetha was persuaded to move into the independent support group full time, becoming CEO in 2000.