Pharmacists should not be treated as ‘substitutes for GPs’, campaigners say as NHS hands chemists powers to give women the Pill and dole out antibiotics to free up millions of appointments
- Pharmacy chiefs broadly welcomed the £645m proposals for England today
- Critics claimed plans to hand powers to pharmacists could fuel rise in superbugs
- READ MORE: Everything you’ll now be able to go to you pharmacist for
Pharmacists should not be considered a substitute for GPs, experts claimed today amid fears ministers are glossing over the dire situation practices are facing.
Under NHS plans to free up millions of appointments with family doctors, chemists will be able to dish out contraceptive pills to women.
High street pharmacists will also get powers to hand out prescriptions for common ailments, meaning patients battling minor illnesses can bypass their GP.
The Royal College of GPs said it was ‘keen to see initiatives that will ease pressure on our struggling service’.
However, chair Professor Kamila Hawthorne added that ‘patients will, in many cases, need the expert diagnostic skills and expertise of a GP’.
Under NHS plans to free up millions of appointments with family doctors, chemists will be able to dish out contraceptive pills to women. High street pharmacists will also get powers to hand out prescriptions for common ailments, meaning patients battling minor illnesses can bypass their GP. Under wider plans, pharmacists will be offering more blood pressure checks to at-risk patients, with a commitment to deliver 2.5 million a year by spring 2025
Pharmacies are on the brink of collapse themselves, experts fear. One in five do not feel prepared for the pressures they face this winter, a poll found. Pictured, a social media user shared a picture of a queue at Boots earlier this month
READ MORE: Everything you’ll now be able to get from your pharmacist under NHS plans to free up millions of GP appointments
She said: ‘Pharmacists and GPs are distinct health professionals, and neither should be seen as a substitute for the other.’
Professor Hawthorne added: ‘Our pharmacist colleagues do an excellent job for their communities.
‘And they are providing invaluable support to many GP practices against a backdrop of huge workload and workforce pressures.’
The RCGP is demanding action to minimise bureaucracy so ‘doctors can spend more time where it is needed most – with their patients’ and to ‘encourage existing GPs to remain in the profession’.
NHS statistics show there were around 27,000 fully-qualified GPs working in England in September.
This is roughly 2,000 fewer than the figure recorded in the same month in 2018.
Many GPs are retiring in their 50s, moving abroad or going private because of rising demand, NHS paperwork and aggressive media coverage.
Pharmacies are on the brink of collapse themselves, experts fear. One in five do not feel prepared for the pressures they face this winter, a poll found.
Just 11,414 community pharmacies offering crucial NHS services remain, the fewest since records began. Almost 400 shut their doors in 2022/23 alone.
Boots and LloydsPharmacy have closed branches en masse in recent months.
Pharmacy bodies argue the sector is struggling due to NHS underfunding, spiralling drug prices and costs, staff shortages and an ailing GP service.
Dennis Reed, director of Silver Voices, which campaigns for elderly Brits, said: ‘I have every respect for the skills of pharmacists.
‘But they are not experts in diagnosis and will not have the full patient records.
‘It is therefore inevitable the right drugs will be dispensed for the wrong condition on many occasions.
‘We are most concerned that everything is being done to diminish the GP role, rather than make sure enough doctors are available to provide timely face-to-face appointments for patients.’
Just 11,414 community pharmacies offering crucial NHS services remain, the fewest since records began. Almost 400 shut their doors in 2022/23 alone. Boots and LloydsPharmacy have closed branches en masse in recent months. Pharmacy bodies argue the sector is struggling due to NHS underfunding, spiralling drug prices and costs, staff shortages and an ailing GP service. Another social media user complained about a ‘ridiculous’ queue in Boots in Redhill earlier this summer
Pharmacists are qualified professionals who undertake a five-year degree.
They do not, however, have full access to patients’ NHS records and are instead only able to view summaries, which contain basic information such as allergies.
William Pett, head of policy, public affairs and research at Healthwatch England, said the scheme had ‘potential problems’.
One of this was ‘pharmacists not being able to see enough of people’s GP records or the ability of different communities and areas to access the new service’.
However, he added: ‘If evaluated well, the NHS will be able to ensure this promising new service really works for patients.’
The NHS plans, which were first announced in May, will bring England into line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Unveiled in full today, health bosses pledged £645million to support delivery of the new community pharmacy services.
The new Pharmacy First scheme, scheduled to launch at the end of January, will see pharmacists offer prescription-only treatment for seven common conditions.
It means patients won’t need a GP appointment first.
Conditions that fall under the reform include, sinusitis, sore throat, earache, infected insect bite, impetigo, shingles and uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women.
Just 11,414 community pharmacies remain, official data on new openings and permanent closures in the 2022/23 financial year shows. While the number of premises closing has consistently outpaced those opening, 2022/23 marked the lowest level recorded since 2015, laying bare the demise of primary care in England
In an open letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in May, however, experts warned that the scheme could increase the risk of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
The group suggested that the policy could have harmful consequences, ‘unless it is implemented with due consideration given to antibiotic resistance’.
The coalition of scientists suggested the scheme could cause the over-prescription of antibiotics, a major factor fuelling the ever-growing threat of ‘superbugs’.
Pharmacists at the time hit back at the ‘disingenuous’ claims, saying they would only initiate treatment ‘after careful consideration of the appropriate options’.
Ministers have vowed to closely assess the situation post-launch.
National Pharmacy Association (NPA) vice-chair, Jay Badenhorst, told MailOnline: ‘We are not doctors and we don’t want to be.
Read more: Death of the local pharmacy: Number of community chemists plunges to a record low. So how bad is the situation in YOUR area? Use our interactive map to find out…
‘We have our own role within the healthcare system and we work closely with doctors and nurses and others to meet patient needs.
‘As for the supply of antibiotics, community pharmacists are just as conscious of the risks of antimicrobial resistance as are their GP colleagues.
‘Pharmacies are under enormous pressure, but we have the right skills to offer these clinical services, plus conveniently located premises and a track record of stepping up to the plate whenever our patients and communities need help.’
Thorrun Govind, former chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, also labelled AMR concerns ‘really unwelcome’.
She told MailOnline: ‘Pharmacists are not substitutes for GPs.
‘We’re excellent with minor common ailments and then obviously we can refer to GPs as appropriate.
‘I don’t have these concerns about AMR because we are at the forefront of actually warning patients about their medication and safeguarding some of the antibiotics.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Community Pharmacy England (CPE) told MailOnline that work had been done to ‘address concerns’ of an increased risk of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
They said: ‘Pharmacists are highly trained healthcare professionals who understand medicines and their potential risks.
‘The experience of the Scottish and Welsh Pharmacy First schemes, not to mention many local schemes in England, suggests that pharmacists are more cautious about supplying antibiotics than other healthcare professionals.’
Community pharmacies are paid a fee for delivering certain core services, including each item dispensed, under their NHS contract.
However, fluctuations in medicines prices currently mean owners are often left out of pocket.
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Dr Leyla Hannbeck, head of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies told MailOnline: ‘Success will very much depend on the level of red tape and whether pharmacists’ time is compensated appropriately, because we cannot take on any more underpaid services.
‘Unfortunately due to years of underfunding despite the rising inflation, more and more pharmacies are closing their doors for good at a worrying pace in many areas of the country.
‘We have highlighted to the officials that our sector has a shortfall of £1.2billion in funding.
‘Unless this shortfall in funding is addressed by the government, more pharmacies will continue to close in the coming months, particularly in areas of high deprivation and less pharmacies will be available and accessible to deliver these valuable services for the NHS.’
NPA chair, Nick Kaye, meanwhile, added: ‘The funding for this service is not going to be enough to address the serious shortfall in core funding and many independent pharmacies are still going to be operating at a loss.
‘The combined issues of contract reform, core funding and pharmacy closures must therefore stay on the negotiating table.’
Separate plans unveiled yesterday will allow women to get contraceptive pills on the high street without having to see a GP.
Starting next month, women in England can obtain a first prescription of the pill by visiting their local pharmacy.
Figures showed a recent sharp increase in the number of prescriptions for antibiotics following years of decline. According to the UKHSA, 58,224 people in England had an antibiotic-resistant infection in 2022, up four per cent on 2021
The move will give women greater choice over where to get the pill.
Pharmacists are currently permitted to dispense contraceptive pills and offer advice on different types of contraception.
But until earlier this year, when the service launched in selected areas locally, they could not prescribe contraceptives.
If women opt for the combined oestrogen and progestogen pill, they will have a check-up with a pharmacist to record their blood pressure and weight.
But no checks are needed for the progestogen-only ‘mini-pill’, NHS England said.
Pharmacies need to sign up for the new service, meaning it will not be available immediately everywhere in England.
As more pharmacies join the scheme, the NHS website will be updated so women can check which locations offer the service.
Women who are too overweight or whose blood pressure is high – putting them at higher risk of blood clots on the combined pill – may be referred to their GP for further checks.
Community pharmacies, meanwhile, have long offered blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar testing.
But the Blood Pressure Check service, which allows people over the age of 40 to check if they are at risk of a heart attack or strike, will also relaunch from December 1 with a wider range of trained pharmacy staff able to provide it.
Officials hope up to 2.5million blood pressure checks will be delivered by spring 2025.
NHS England also estimates this could prevent more than 1,350 heart attacks and strokes in the first year.
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