Over the last two years, the number of community pharmacists on the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) register who trained in the European Economic Area (EEA) dropped 9% – from 3,652 to 3,319. I would argue these 333 departures run contrary to the commendable ethos of diversity in community pharmacy, which creates spaces approachable for patients of any background.
There are enough pharmacists for now. The exodus seen in other healthcare areas – such as nursing and midwifery, where 2,909 EEA professionals (8% of the total) left in the year up to March 2018 – has not yet been reflected in community pharmacy. Company Chemists’ Association chief executive Malcolm Harrison’s warning of a future shortfall of pharmacists will probably only lead to a bump in hourly locum rates.
But every European pharmacist who leaves the UK will be a loss to the commendable diversity of the region’s pharmacies. Having non-British pharmacists in pharmacies makes for a more reassuring environment for non-British patients. Hearing and seeing pharmacists from other European cultures encourages European patients – there are, after all, approximately 3.8 million Europeans in the UK – to come forward with their health issues. This surely helps to strengthen patient-pharmacist relationships, leading to better patient care.
It is always helpful to have someone who speaks other languages in a pharmacy. It is valuable for a pharmacist to be able to explain to Romanian patients how to take their medicines, for example, in their mother tongue, and there are hundreds of Romanian pharmacists in the UK. But the loss of 333 pharmacists from the EEA since November 2016 means countless fewer multilingual interactions with patients.
Working with staff from different backgrounds can boost creativity. Interacting with staff who have worked in pharmacies in Warsaw, Nice, Milan or elsewhere can bring different ideas. At a time when health secretary Matt Hancock is praising the "French model" of pharmacy, surely we want to retain pharmacists with first-hand experience of how this model works?
The doubt Brexit has cast in the minds of thousands of European healthcare workers in the UK is one of the most destructive side effects of the prevailing political uncertainty. French contractor Olivier Picard told me he has staff in his three Berkshire pharmacies from Poland and France. But Mr Picard also told me he feels less at home in the UK since the Brexit vote, despite residing here for over a decade. He is not alone. Many are questioning whether they should “Leave” too.
Of course, pharmacists are not to be blamed if they wish to leave. But the UK leaving the EU should not mean pharmacists need to evacuate. Pharmacy should remember that Britain will always be part of Europe geographically. Having European pharmacists in our pharmacies can offer the UK an example of what a strong community can look like after Brexit.
Thomas Cox is senior reporter at C+D, tweet him @CandDThomas