The future of healthcare lies in our pharmacies, by Peter Aldous MP

Two weeks ago in Parliament, I was pleased to lead a debate on community pharmacies. From the feedback which I receive from constituents, I am very much aware of the ongoing pressures community pharmacies face on a daily basis. However, in recent times, there has been a considerable rise in the pressures facing the sector. As confirmed by the Pharmacy Minister, Neil O’Brien MP, this has culminated in a staggering 222 pharmacies closed in the first six months of 2023, including six in Suffolk.

In preparation for this debate, I visited two pharmacies in my consistency. One is a well-known large multiple chain and the other is independently owned. From speaking to pharmacists and their teams, I saw how small and large pharmacies alike are facing similar underlying pressure.

The current situation is now so severe that patients and service users are being impacted, and quite significantly. I said in my debate that there is a need to address the enormous pressures that community pharmacists currently face. If this is not done, the sector could cease to exist in large swathes of the country.

But what exactly are these pressures, and how do we tackle them?

Local pharmacists and pharmacy leaders tell me that the main pressures include instability with recruiting pharmacists and technicians, the medicines market, and increased demand for services since the pandemic. However, the main driving pressure that links all of these is lack of core funding, which has been reduced by 30% in real terms since 2015.

Data from Community Pharmacy England (CPE), the representative body for community pharmacies, supports this. They found that 97% of pharmacy owners reported being unable to source medicines for patients. 81% said they were unable to spend as much time with patients and 92% of pharmacy staff have seen a significant increase in requests from patients unable to access General Practice. Perhaps most worryingly of all, almost all pharmacy teams and pharmacy owners reported that patients and service users were being negatively affected by the pressures on their pharmacy. It is clear that things cannot go on the way they are for too much longer. Change is needed.

As I said in debate, I believe that’s CPE’s 6-point plan will allow the sector to fulfil its potential. They are calling for:

  • Pharmacy funding to be reformed to give pharmacies a long-term, economically sustainable funding agreement;
  • A common conditions service to be implemented;
  • Building on other clinical service areas, such as vaccinations, women’s health and long-term conditions management;
  • Reform of the medicines market to stop dispensing at a loss and delays for patients;
  • Review of regulatory burdens to make running community pharmacies easier; and
  • A long-term plan for the community pharmacy workforce.

I am of the view that these reforms are urgently required and I was reassured to hear the Pharmacy Minster acknowledge in the debate that he’s “working on all of them”.

So then, if all these pressures were solved, what would the future of community pharmacies be?

A report published this week by The King’s Fund and Nuffield Trust holds many of the answers. The report, titled ‘A vision for community pharmacy’, makes several recommendations which focus on what type of help patients could expect from their local pharmacies in the next few years, providing appropriate funding is in place.

One of the most interesting recommendations is around empowering pharmacies to support patients with long term conditions such as asthma and diabetes, both of which could be easily managed and treated by a local pharmacist. This would undoubtedly take pressure off GP services and free up appointments for those who really need to see a doctor.

Another recommendation is to make better use of pharmacists’ independent prescribing skills, so that they will eventually be able to diagnose, treat and manage a whole host of varied conditions.

These thought-provoking recommendations, if taken on board, will transform the role of community pharmacies, becoming central to the delivery of joined-up, responsive and person-centred healthcare.

Pharmacies are a considerable source of untapped potential and have so much more to offer in primary care. It’s time we backed them to do so.

Peter Aldous is the Conservative MP for Waveney.