The government must not forget pharmacists as it promises to improve access to primary care, healthcare leaders have told C+D.
Prime minister David Cameron announced plans on Tuesday (September 30) for the whole population to be able to book a GP appointment from 8am until 8pm seven days a week, but Conservative MP and health select committee chair Sarah Wollaston said pharmacy had a "huge role to play" if the government hoped to expand patient care.
"It's not just a GP-focused solution. In an ideal world it would be lovely to be able to offer seven-day access, but at the moment we do have a shortfall [of GPs]," Dr Wollaston told C+D in an exclusive interview at the Conservative party conference.
Attempts to improve access must "go beyond just looking at GPs" and find ways of increasing patient engagement with other healthcare professionals, such as pharmacists and nurses, she stressed.
Dr Wollaston expressed doubts about implementing the government's plans in rural areas; smaller practices would struggle to stagger their staff's work shifts across 12 hours, she said.
Jennifer Dixon, chief executive of charity the Health Foundation, agreed that "well qualified" pharmacists could play a "much bigger role" in helping GPs improve access to care.
Providing more GPs would produce a greater demand for appointments, said Dr Dixon, who suggested that investing in healthcare access that "isn't face-to-face" – such as via Skype – could be more cost-effective.
"If your [aim] is to build more resilience amongst the population then it is [about] giving them access in their own homes. The question is, could it be remote and not face-to-face?" she said.
Both Mr Cameron and health secretary Jeremy Hunt used the party conference this week to pledge to open GP surgeries for 12 hours a day, seven days a week by 2020, while Mr Hunt also confirmed plans to "train and retain" 5,000 extra GPs.
Although he failed to refer to community pharmacy in his speech, Mr Hunt told C+D during a fringe event that pharmacists had a "fantastically important role to play" in the health service.