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Time to politicise the profession

"The government's rejection of a student cap llustrates a wider pharmacy problem I’ve been raising for years: our complete lack of political engagement" - Graham Phillips

Political apathy has been pharmacy’s undoing, so let’s do something about it and save the NHS, says Graham Phillips

I can think of no issue more pressing than the prospect of mass unemployment and salary deflation as a result of over-production of pharmacists in our profession. I, too, was incandescent when I read the pathetic statement from universities minister Greg Clark that “it is government policy to remove student number controls”, in explanation of the decision to reject the proposed and widely supported cap.

This issue, though, illustrates a wider pharmacy problem I’ve been raising for years: our complete lack of political engagement.


Disengagement is damaging

Pharmacy gets forgotten in health policy development and politicians use ‘doctors and nurses’ as shorthand for the NHS. Why? Because we let them get away with it.

Nearly all pharmacists I encounter proudly proclaim that they “don’t do politics”. Politics is a dirty word – despite the fact that so much of our professional future is dependent upon the decisions of politicians.

By comparison, other medical professions are masters at understanding the political process, pressing its buttons and pulling its levers. We need to match this mastery to compete effectively in the politics of healthcare. As long as pharmacists shy away from politics, we will continue to punch below our weight and fail to achieve our professional ambitions. In short, ignoring politics is professional suicide.


National meets individual

I have long argued that national pharmacy bodies should all work together to maximise their effectiveness and create a more visible presence for the profession. They need to invest far more in activities that support and give a strong voice to the aspirations of the profession.

But we can all do this. I am often asked what pharmacy bodies are doing about a particular or contentious political issue. And often my reply is: “Tell me what you're doing about it.”
We have a massive advantage: there are nearly 12,000 pharmacies in England that could and should function as a living portal for the pharmacy message. Every time a member of the public goes into a pharmacy — millions of ‘hits’ a day — we have the opportunity to make a good impression, communicate a message and demonstrate why we matter to an audience of more members of the public, carers, politicians, medical professionals and journalists than the pharmacy bodies could hope to reach. Pharmacies and pharmacists are our own best PR.

Both elements – the national and the individual – need to be working in tandem to raise pharmacy’s political profile; successful public affairs work is built upon sustained day-to-day contacts and briefings punctuated by ‘big bang’ campaigns.

What if we all united behind a single, simple campaign – How pharmacy can save the NHS – that would drive home a small number of key themes (see 7 steps to saving the NHS, below right). All seven themes resonate well with the NHS’s recently published Five Year Forward View vision.

All we need is one poster, displayed in every pharmacy window. One leaflet, a copy of which can be handed to each of the 2 million who visit a pharmacy every day. Let’s leave no political stone unturned. We can access every member of the public, every local and national politician, health colleagues and journalists. We must lobby every MP and invite them to a pharmacy in their constituency. Offer them a photo opportunity and do some pharmacy ‘show and tell’.


The perfect storm of opportunity

Would it work? The strength of the pharmacy organisations working together from their different perspectives was demonstrated beyond doubt a few years ago, when the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) proposed a free-for-all market in community pharmacy. The organisations and, most importantly, individual pharmacists themselves, mounted a vigorous lobby to communicate our concerns to the public, who swamped politicians’ mailboxes with letters of support for our position.

All of this was at the time of the Gulf War. Besides pharmacy, the only issue mentioned more in the House of Commons was the war itself. In turn, politicians across all parties backed pharmacy’s cause — a highly unusual result, politically speaking. Scotland and Wales rejected the OFT’s plans entirely. In England, the government backed away from the OFT’s position with its so-called “balanced package of measures”. Which was, admittedly, a fudge. But we kept up the pressure and now no more 100-hour pharmacy contracts will be issued.

The perfect storm in which the NHS finds itself creates a huge opportunity for pharmacy. The desperate lack of GPs and the shortage of cash means politicians and commissioners are searching for answers. Mere tweaks won’t do it. There is a realisation that pharmacy holds many of the solutions, coupled with growing support from patient groups, the NHS Alliance, NHS England, Public Health England and many politicians. And there is growing recognition of pharmacists’ potential from medical bodies such as the Royal College of General Practitioners and the BMA.

So will pharmacy again be a passive bystander and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? One thing’s for sure: doing nothing will achieve nothing. Our future lies in all of our hands.

Graham Phillips is owner of Manor Pharmacy Group (Wheathampstead) Ltd (@grahamsphillips)


Don't forget to engage with local news media, too. With the General Election only weeks away and NHS services a top political topic, there has never been a better time to put community pharmacy to the forefront of politicians' and voters' attention - and make sure it stays there.

Robert Rees, Manager

Brilliant Graham! I urge every pharmacist to follow Graham's lead and engage with your local politicians. No doubt Graham can help you get started.

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