Industry Insight

Community pharmacies need more support to deliver Pharmacy First scheme

Santosh Sahu at Charac considers the NHS’ Pharmacy First scheme Pharmacy First scheme, it benefits and the barriers to its implementation
The launch of the NHS Pharmacy First service is critical to supporting GPs and relieving the massive strain on our country’s primary care system, highlighting the vital role community pharmacies play in addressing this national crisis. However, community pharmacies will struggle to deliver these services to the best of their ability due to factors such as chronic underfunding, staff shortages and understaffing.
Community pharmacies must be empowered and their workloads must be reduced in order for Pharmacy First to be a success, and to do that, they need to be encouraged to adopt technology, and fast.

Pharmacy troubles

The government’s Pharmacy First initiative is poised to utilise the untapped resources of community pharmacies, placing them at the forefront of healthcare services and testing their ability to step up to the challenge. This move aims to bolster support for the NHS and significantly expand the role of community pharmacists nationwide. With the roll-out of the Pharmacy First initiative, pharmacists will now be able to prescribe treatments for seven common health conditions: sinusitis, sore throats, earache, insect bites, impetigo, shingles and uncomplicated urinary tract infections (UTIs) in women. This positions pharmacists as a reliable initial point of contact for the public, alleviating the pressure on GPs and accident and emergency (A&E) departments, which continue to face overwhelming demands.
However, community pharmacies are facing their own hurdles. Funding cuts since 2016 – close to 30% – have stretched the capability of pharmacies to breaking point.1 In fact, according to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), community pharmacies are facing an annual shortfall in funding of over £750m (around £70,000 per pharmacy), more than the allocated pledge of £645m as part of the PFS.2 With a number of community pharmacies forced to close and a Health and Social Care Committee (HSCC) review in July 2023 finding that government progress ‘requires improvement’, community pharmacies desperately need more support.3
Indeed, pharmacy underfunding is only one part of the problem. Pharmacy staff vacancies doubled between 2017 and 2023, and alarmingly, a Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) 2023 survey on pharmacy pressures found that 81% of pharmacy staff are ‘struggling to cope’ with the escalating demand for their services.4,5 Furthermore, the workforce crunch is exacerbated by a disconcerting trend: the closure of pharmacies. Approximately eight pharmacies shut their doors in England every week, resulting in the loss of nearly 1,000 pharmacies since 2017, with a third of them disappearing in the last year alone.6,7
However, there is hope for community pharmacies. Around 300 community pharmacies have opened in England each year since 2021 – approximately six per week – and closures of chains such as Boots and Lloyds have seen some independent pharmacy owners make purchases.

Digital drive

Indeed, high street pharmacies remain our best bet in solving the nation’s health crisis. Community pharmacists in a similar way to GPs and are able to support patients with minor health conditions and are the perfect solution for plugging the gap.
A week before the launch of the Pharmacy First scheme, a survey was conducted that found that almost half of patients had no knowledge or awareness of Pharmacy First.8 Patients were seemingly reluctant to use pharmacies as their first port of call, the rate of which being as low as 23% for certain minor conditions such as UTIs. Yet, once informed of Pharmacy First, this number rose to as high as 56%. Indeed, patient trust in pharmacies has historically been lower than other health services, and by giving pharmacists new responsibilities, Pharmacy First will bolster patient confidence in the ability of pharmacists to treat minor health complaints.9
To truly demonstrate their value as clinicians, however, community pharmacies need swift adoption of technology to better document and share data between clinicians, improving collaborative care and patient outcomes. Digitalisation, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, has massively contributed to enhanced patient care accessibility and reduced workloads for healthcare professionals. Given the imperative for efficiency, a shift to a technology-driven system is crucial. From this, pharmacists will be able to move from manual to digital paperwork, facilitating easier sharing, storing and locating of patient records while standardising processes. This will also help pharmacists maintain comprehensive patient records that are similar to GP and hospital practices under the NHS, thereby streamlining processes and minimising unnecessary administrative responsibilities.
Furthermore, a tech-driven pharmacy sector will help pharmacists to execute initiatives such as the New Medicine Service, which allows pharmacists to claim NHS payments and generate revenue altogether. By adopting technology, pharmacists will be better able to identify eligibility and streamline booking processes for such services, making it easier to record patient appointments.

Transforming pharmacies

Digital enhancements also bring advantages for patients, improving accessibility of primary care and elevating patient outcomes. Patients will no longer be dependent on calling or physically visiting pharmacists to seek care; instead, they can utilise patient management systems to book consultations, effortlessly order medications and even have them delivered to their doorstep.
Storing patient data can also contribute to better patient outcomes – patient management systems can aggregate and analyse health data, providing healthcare providers with valuable information for personalised treatment plans. This data-driven approach enables proactive and preventive healthcare measures, reducing the likelihood of complications
By empowering community pharmacies to deliver Pharmacy First successfully, our pharmacies can effectively serve as the initial touchpoint for patients needing treatment for minor health complaints, which make up one in six of GP appointments, and alleviate mounting pressure on other frontline primary care services.10 Through digital transformation, bolstered support for pharmacies and improved public awareness, we can realise the full impact of the Pharmacy First scheme.

Santosh Sahu is the founder and CEO of Charac, The Pharmacy App. Santosh has more than 20 years’ experience in the retail, banking and IT sectors building tech platforms and business solutions. His recent experience includes founding and leading ‘On the dot’ as CEO, a last-mile delivery platform within the CitySprint Group.