Having worked in England for many years, coming home to Northern Ireland last year was like taking a step back in time. I was not aware of any new services having been added since I’d left. This wasn’t due to a lack of trying from Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland (CPNI) but, quite simply, the funding wasn’t there initially and then – when it was – the government wasn’t.
When the government finally got back to work, it was only two months before COVID-19 struck and any hopes of new pharmacy funding were dashed once again. Fast forward to July and the shock on my face was visible as I read a letter confirming a £13.25 million boost to funding.
Although the increase doesn’t come close to covering pharmacy losses from the lack of funding over the past few years, it was more than I had ever expected. In addition, some much-needed new services came in with the funding boost.
A new emergency supply service was commissioned during lockdown, designed to provide patients with a supply of their regular medicines when obtaining a prescription from their surgery isn’t possible.
The service has been a great success so far, due to its efficiency in reducing out-of-hours GP workload. As a result, the service will continue beyond the current crisis. Efficiency is key to sustaining new services and the fact that this initial offering has passed that test will be music to CPNI's ears, as well as pharmacy contractors up and down the country.
For years, pharmacies have been pleading their case. Now the Department of Health in Northern Ireland has had a peek at their potential, more services appear to be in the pipeline.
There is talk of a specialised care home service, and there may even be a fabled delivery service for vulnerable patients. The language coming from the government phrases the potential commissions as fair rewards for our efforts during the lockdown, and hopefully they are signs of things to come.
With all the years of neglect, however, there is no doubt some pressure to allocate some of that money into future planning. We missed the boat for an electronic prescription service (EPS) and for a proper advanced minor ailments service. If pharmacies in Northern Ireland aren’t careful, we will miss out on implementing this winter’s flu jabs for the first time and maybe a COVID-19 vaccine service.
Taking a large chunk of this money now and investing in our own version of an EPS system in Northern Ireland would revolutionise how pharmacies can provide a timelier service to their patients. GP surgeries here are, on average, smaller than in the rest of the UK, which leads to a headache around collecting prescriptions.
I’ve worked in some pharmacies in Belfast that pick up from over 50 different surgeries, with one member of staff spending their entire week organising, reordering and collecting these prescriptions. A simplification of this and other similar processes would be worth more to pharmacies in the long-term. Perhaps it is the less glamorous option, but when funding like this doesn’t come along very often, glamour is not the priority.
The Multiple Manager works in a Northern Irish branch of a pharmacy chain