Dr Zubair Ahmed discusses the important role the community pharmacy plays in the sustainability of healthcare.
Working as a GP, I saw first-hand how the traditional model of primary care was struggling. The broad challenges faced by the NHS, including a shortage of GPs, surgery closures and an ageing population with more complex disease, have increased the pressures on the NHS. Ultimately, this has led to problems with access to primary care; with patients struggling to get appointments when needed.
“Ideally, no matter which pharmacy patients visit, they should receive a high level of standardised care from a qualified health professional”
In these difficult times, it becomes increasingly clear how important a role community pharmacy plays in supporting the public’s health with quality, accessible care. With all of the challenges facing primary care, there are many opportunities arising for community pharmacy. According to NHS England, as many as 30 million consultations in GP practices could be delivered in a different setting. One such setting is the often-undervalued environment of local pharmacies, offering convenient access to trained healthcare professionals.
There are over 11,500 community pharmacies in England, each serving around 5,000 people. Unlike GP practices, pharmacies often benefit from being situated in convenient high street locations. Furthermore, pharmacies are generally open longer than GP surgeries, with many open well into the night and on public holidays. This provides unparalleled access to a trusted healthcare setting.
Wide range of services
This convenient access to a health professional can be very appealing, especially to patients who have become accustomed to the immediacy of modern services like Amazon, Uber and Netflix. Improving access has the ability to improve overall health outcomes by picking up disease earlier, decreasing strain on other parts of the health system and better managing chronic disease. For example, 1.2 million people with asthma don’t get an annual asthma review which contributes towards 800 avoidable deaths per year. Providing on-demand, convenient and accessible asthma reviews will only help this problem.
“AT THE HEART OF OUR COMMUNITY, WE SHOULD STRIVE TOWARDS MAKING PHARMACY THE FIRST POINT OF CONTACT WITHIN OUR HEALTH SYSTEM”
Community pharmacies can offer so much more than a channel for the dispensing of medicines, and patients are beginning to recognise this. For many years, pharmacies have increasingly been commissioned to deliver a wide range of services, including NHS Health Checks, smoking cessation, vaccinations, substance misuse services, sexual health screening, emergency contraception and many more. Over 80% of all pharmacies have been accredited as Healthy Living Pharmacies (HLPs), largely due to the scheme being incentivised with an NHS England Quality Payment.
There is increasing evidence to show that community pharmacy is still being under-utilised. For decades, the NHS has tried to encourage people to visit their local pharmacy rather than their GP practice, with limited success. Far too many people use GP surgeries to treat conditions which could be swiftly managed at their local pharmacy by a skilled staff member, including pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and Health Champions.
Raising awareness of what a community pharmacy is able to do is crucial to overcoming this challenge. GPs have a role in informing patients when their health condition could be treated by a pharmacist instead of a GP. This helps to prevent unnecessary GP visits, provide a better patient experience and encourage patient behaviour change.
Another obstacle faced by community pharmacy, however, is that the patient experience can vary significantly depending on which pharmacy a patient goes to and when they go. While some pharmacies have independent pharmacist prescribers and can give a lot more advice, some other pharmacists have limited expertise and are not confident managing some clinical presentations. This lack of standardisation can hurt the agenda of making pharmacies the frontline of healthcare as patients are left confused as to what can and can’t be done from a pharmacy as the patient may refer back to their NHS GP surgery questioning the capabilities of a pharmacy.
This highlights a need to make the patient experience more consistent in community pharmacy. Ideally, no matter which pharmacy patients visit, they should receive a high level of standardised care from a qualified health professional. One solution to this is a nationwide training scheme and provision of facilities.
Alternatively, community pharmacies can also take advantage of new developments in health technology to help level the playing field. With telemedicine, pharmacies could use a pool of prescribing pharmacists and GPs to deliver a consistently high quality of care, no matter which pharmacy a patient walks into at whatever time of the day or night.
Working closely with independent pharmacies across the UK, it is inspiring to see how deeply each and every team cares about serving their local community. The vital role community pharmacy can play is clear: providing a better patient experience and improving health outcomes by improving access. At the heart of our community, we should strive towards making pharmacy the first point of contact within our health system.
Dr Zubair Ahmed is Chief Executive Officer of Medicspot.
Go to www.medicspot.co.uk