Quite apart from the inconvenience for patients, poor access to the NHS creates knock-on inefficiencies throughout the health and social care system. Community pharmacies, walk-in services near where people live, work and shop, are surely part of the solution.
Pharmacies already offer support that encompasses prevention, treatment for common ailments, health surveillance and the routine medicines management of long-term conditions.
Patients generally have access to the pharmacist within minutes of entering the pharmacy, usually without an appointment. Some 89 per cent of the population are within a 20-minute walk of a community pharmacy and opening hours are generally longer than many other settings. There are 1.6 million visits to a community pharmacy every day; that adds up to 14 visits per person a year.
By developing local pharmacies as neighbourhood health and wellbeing centres, and allowing pharmacists to put their clinical skills to full use, more capacity can be released into an NHS system under very severe strain.
How pharmacies can alleviate NHS burden
For example, pharmacies in the north-east of England have been brought into the urgent care pathway, bringing into play an extensive network for the assessment, advice and treatment of patients for a range of low-acuity conditions, such as coughs and colds. On referral from NHS 111, patients are clinically assessed in pharmacy consultation rooms rather than urgent care centres.
Meanwhile, a recently evaluated scheme in Sheffield showed how pharmacies could release 18 million GP appointments nationwide by conducting medication reviews in the pharmacy and providing other dedicated support to practices.
Next month, NHS England is expected to unveil its ten-year plan for the health service, unlocking an additional £20 billion in government funding and determining the trajectory of the health service for years to come.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed that a large proportion of the investment will be focused on prevention through primary and community care services.
National Pharmacy Association and other pharmacy leaders have briefed officials developing the plan about the potential of community pharmacies to prevent disease and maintain good health. We believe that more screening, diagnostic capacity and ongoing monitoring services in pharmacies would help improve outcomes in relation to cardiovascular disease, respiratory conditions and cancer, three of the clinical priorities identified by NHS England. Such developments would achieve great population health results in the long term and achieve system-wide efficiencies by preventative care closer to home.
Pharmacies must be careful not to lose the human touch
Seven in ten people regard face-to-face advice from a pharmacist or other member of the pharmacy team as very important to them, a proportion which increases among key groups of pharmacy users, including carers, older people and parents of young children.
But the high levels of satisfaction people express about their local pharmacies is no reason for complacency. As far as the future of community pharmacy is concerned, we need to go forwards or we will go backwards. There can be no standing still, given the constant evolution of consumer behaviours, as well as developments in digital technology, which will undoubtedly be an increasing feature of healthcare.
Our challenge is to use technology to achieve efficiencies and integrated care, without losing the human touch in healthcare. It’s important that pharmacies are progressive and modern, while at the same time being true to the historic values of pharmacy as a personal, caring profession. Tech should be deployed to enhance, rather than undermine, pharmacies’ locally based service proposition to be responsive, accessible, caring and community focused.