It's a rainy, wintry day in London when C+D meets Steve Banks, Boots' freshly appointed superintendent pharmacist. At the time of the interview, it's only been a week since Mr Banks officially assumed the post and, talking animatedly at a central London restaurant, he appears keen to make his mark in the role.
Of course, Mr Banks is far from a newcomer to Boots. He has worked for the multiple for 28 years since qualifying as a pharmacist – his career spanning IT, recruitment and commercial departments before heading up the pharmacy team.
But while his enthusiasm for the company's direction is apparent – he's a firm believer in the focus on long-term conditions – he's eager to steer away from more controversial topics.
Controversy is one thing pharmacy hasn't been short of recently. The latest debacle to hit Boots saw GPs level strong criticism at its diabetes risk assessment service, which was launched in January. The BMA didn't mince its words about the "unnecessary workload" GPs could face as a result of the initiative, which has seen Boots pharmacists offer customers questionnaires to assess their likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.
Accentuating the positive
But Mr Banks is keen to avoid a war of words, instead highlighting the more positive response from GPs at a local level and potential patient benefits. "From a patient perspective, I think pharmacy's really set up to provide these sort of services," he stresses.
"With Boots being a national chain, we're very accessible to people, and it's something that takes a few minutes but really does help identify people's risk factors."
The service could actually take pressure off GPs, he suggests. "This service will help people who could run a risk of developing type 2 diabetes from actually getting the condition, so in that respect it will keep people out of GP surgeries and living a healthier lifestyle."
This collaborative working is clearly important to his vision of pharmacy's future. Although Mr Banks is reluctant to comment on the overall GP-pharmacist relationship and how this will evolve in the new NHS, he's optimistic that health professionals will maintain and develop a supportive relationship. "I think it's already true to say that pharmacists and GPs and other professionals are working together for the common good of the patient," he says. "I think that's something that's already happening and I see that happening more."
Despite fears over pharmacy losing out under the new NHS, Mr Banks believes it will fuel an increasing demand for services. "I think that, with the changes going on in the NHS and increasing patient expectations as well, we're going to be asked and have the opportunity to do even more things," he tells C+D.
This, of course, is central to Boots' strategy. In May last year, the multiple revamped the look of its pharmacies to focus on "condition-led" care – creating iconography for health services and updating consultation rooms to give them a "more inviting feel". And its focus on long-term conditions was further cemented by the recent launch of its diabetes risk assessment service and cancer support partnership with Macmillan.
Mr Banks is confident this approach will meet a growing patient need. "One in five people in the UK is over 60 and they're living with chronic conditions for longer," he explains. "I think we're really well placed to help people with those chronic conditions, all the way from first wondering about their health, right through to being able to provide them with advice and reassurance. I think that's what the future is going to be about – empowering patients by giving them that information and signposting them to other services if that's appropriate."
With this strong focus, it's little wonder he cites supporting pharmacists to deliver services as his first priority as superintendent. While he stresses that dispensing remains important, he sees pharmacy as being at a "turning point" where services will become a growing part of the profession's role.
But it's this dual pressure to dispense and perform services that's causing many pharmacists to report rising stress levels and time constraints. While Mr Banks is clear he understands the pressures, he believes the answer lies in strong pharmacy teams. "We spend an awful lot of time and effort training pharmacy teams and, increasingly, registered technicians are able to help with the dispensing service, which frees up the pharmacist," he says.
Ultimately, though, won't the contract need to change to reflect this evolving role? Mr Banks' response is typically diplomatic. "The contract as it is allows us to do the things we want to do in the Boots strategy," he answers. "Where there's a win for patients, the NHS and Boots, is in delivering increasing value to the patient."
Steve Banks' rise through the Boots ranks
2005-06 Regional director and member of operating board Leading one of four Boots regions, Mr Banks was responsible for seven area managers covering 330 pharmacies 2006-07 Director of profit protection A cross-company position in which Mr Banks says he significantly reduced stock losses
2007-10 Director of IT Leading a team of 250 Boots IT employees as well as external suppliers, Mr Banks' achievements in this position included reducing IT spend by a third and integrating two teams
2010 Director of transformation In this briefly held position, Mr Banks led a strategic review to increase profitability across 2,500 Boots stores
2010-12 Director of capability With responsibility across 70,000 employees, Mr Banks led Boots' 'reward, policy and people' strategy, as well as the creation of a centre of excellence for recruitment, learning and development
2013- Superintendent pharmacist Mr Banks says it is "a great honour" to assume professional leadership of all Boots' UK pharmacists and teams
Steve Banks on...
The new NHS "I believe there's a great opportunity for the profession as a whole and Boots to work with the NHS and make sure we're working with the new set-up to provide services that are most important locally."
The changing role of pharmacy "I think we're at a place where the traditional role of dispensing – the supply of medicines and giving advice – is going to be really important, but we really do seem to be at a turning point where there are more and more services coming along."
Decriminalising dispensing errors "I do think it's important that it's being sorted out. While the conversations are going on, what we need to do is develop the right culture around dispensing errors, where pharmacists feel able to report, talk about and learn from errors that happen."
Public perception of pharmacy "There are so many great stories that pharmacy has to tell of the fantastic care it delivers every day across the UK... so I think the important thing is that we make sure we're promoting publicly the difference we can make in people's lives."