Northern Ireland’s pharmacies have generally languished behind our larger cousins across the water. Be it our computer systems, prescribing practices or the services we provide, Northern Ireland appears to be suffering from a gap in progression. Having worked in England for a number of years, coming home felt like I’d stepped back in time. Goodbye instantaneous electronic prescriptions, hello again illegible, handwritten requests.
Even something as simple as picking up prescriptions from surgeries is an arduous task. With many practices refusing to ‘tag’ their scripts, we must write down every patient’s name and hand that list to a receptionist, who begrudgingly flicks through their large pile of prescriptions, sighing all the while.
This is where I imagined community pharmacy used to be, before the computer boom. Yet here we are, paying for a qualified dispenser to spend their day ordering repeats over the phone. The technology is there, but the funding – and the political will to secure it for us – is not.
And yet there are some bright moments to feel hopeful about. I saw more of the local GPs in my first two months back than I did in my first two years in England. Got an issue with a script? Each surgery has their own practice pharmacist, one for every 8,000 or so patients – more than anywhere else in the UK. Most are former community pharmacists, who feel your pain and know that when you ask for something, it’s usually for a good reason.
Having pharmacists in GP surgeries is no doubt good news, but has it come at the expense of community pharmacy? When I returned from England, we had the same services as when I left, no additions, no extensions.
Reading about all the great strides made in the rest of the UK – a national flu service in England, an expanded national minor ailments scheme in Scotland and discharge medicines reviews in Wales – left me frustrated this week when I discovered a non-descript ‘winter pressures’ service commencing in Northern Ireland in a week’s time.
Far be it from me to criticise that timeframe, but this service seems like an afterthought, a bone thrown to the dog in the corner when everyone else has had their fill.
Community pharmacy can do so much more and deserves more than a sticking plaster at a time when surgeries are closing across the country for lack of GPs. A forward-thinking NHS would use pharmacy to pick up the slack. Just give us the chance – and resource – to do it.
So until then, here I am, waiting on a computer that seems older than me to load, in a dated dispensary with shelves that are older than me, wondering at what point did pharmacy get forgotten?
The Multiple Manager works in a Northern Irish branch of a major pharmacy chain