New powers for pharmacies ‘will free up 30 million GP appointments a year’

Under the Pharmacy First scheme, patients can visit pharmacies to receive treatment
Under the Pharmacy First scheme, patients can visit pharmacies to receive treatment - Tom Werner/Digital Vision
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Pharmacists will be given extra powers to see and treat patients from this Wednesday and free up as many as 30 million GP appointments per year.

Under Pharmacy First plans, people can visit pharmacies such as Boots to receive treatment for simple and common illnesses, instead of seeing a doctor.

They will be able to walk into more than 10,000 chemists in England for consultations without needing to book an appointment, under the scheme.

Pharmacists have been told they can treat and prescribe medication for seven conditions: earache, sore throats, sinusitis, shingles, impetigo, urinary tract infections and infected insect bites and stings.

Dr Claire Fuller, NHS medical director for primary care and lead GP, said that people “will be to walk into your community pharmacist on your local high street after you’ve done your shopping or run your errands without booking an appointment”, and be assessed by a trained pharmacist.

“While GPs like me will always be on hand to help, pharmacists at the heart of our communities are a convenient and safe option for people to get help for common conditions,” she said.

In Scotland, where the initiative has been rolled out, around a quarter of the population, or more than 1.2 million people, used a pharmacy first service instead of going to the GP in 2021-22, figures from Public Health Scotland show.

Of those accessing the service, 86 per cent went home with medication, 10 per cent with advice, while 4 per cent were referred on to another service, such as a GP, if that was deemed necessary.

Children aged under 10 were the most likely to use the pharmacy service, an analysis found, with almost half of them having used it. This was followed by adults aged between 80 and 90, at just over a quarter using it, although it was used regularly by those of all ages.

Extrapolated across England, about 15 million people would stand to benefit each year.

The NHS previously estimated that around 6 per cent of all GP appointments could be delivered by pharmacists, which is about 25 million based on 2023 data.

Industry leaders say pharmacists could deliver even more – the equivalent of 30 million GP consultations a year – if they are backed with additional funding and the removal of red tape on pharmacist independent prescribing qualifications, which currently means 23,000 pharmacists are not able prescribe patients medication.

‘Free up GP capacity at critical time’

Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists’ Association, said the move would “free up GP capacity at a critical time for the NHS”.

“We are confident that the community pharmacy sector will deliver for patients and the NHS, just as it did during the Covid-19 pandemic,” Mr Harrison said. “However, there is an opportunity to go further.”

He added “an ambitious and fully funded Pharmacy First service could free up 30 million GP appointments annually”.

Boots, which has more than 2,000 stores in the UK, said patients would be able to use its private consultation rooms to discuss personal health issues confidentially, if required.

‘Will make life easier for patients’

Jamie Kerruish, healthcare director at Boots, said the scheme was “going to make life much easier for patients to access the care and medicines they need quickly and will help create more capacity for GPs across England”.

“We are very much looking forward to launching the NHS Pharmacy First service at our stores in England this week, following thorough and rapid preparation by our amazing pharmacy teams,” he said. “We deliver similar services in Scotland and Wales where they are very popular, and we think patients in England will love the service too.”

Pharmacists and MPs also believe that community pharmacy should play a greater role in delivering routine vaccinations for children.

Currently they offer both Covid and flu jabs, but not measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) or HPV vaccines for children, which have slumped post-pandemic leading to NHS campaigns to increase uptake.

Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, said she had written to the NHS last week “to express our willingness” to help with the measles vaccine catch-up campaign.

“They are already well trained in vaccination services and provide accessibility and convenience to patients,” she said. “When it is difficult for many patients to book an appointment with their GP surgeries, having vaccination services supplied by community pharmacies makes perfect sense.”

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