Trouble accessing GPs causes rise in patients turning to pharmacists

·3 min read
A pharmacist assists a young woman in a chemist - shapecharge/E+
A pharmacist assists a young woman in a chemist - shapecharge/E+

Difficulties accessing a GP have forced the number of patients turning to pharmacists for medical advice to increase by 44 per cent in two years, figures suggest.

In 2022, 865,000 people, on average, per week were given clinical advice by pharmacists, up from 600,000 in 2020.

The figures, from Pharmacy Advice Audit by the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), also estimate 65 million informal consultations will take place in pharmacies this year, up from 58 million in 2021 and 52 million in 2020.

Almost 250,000 consultations a week are carried out in pharmacies because a patient was unable to access another part of the NHS, such as not being able to speak to the GP or secure an appointment, the audit found.

Janet Morrison, the PSNC chief executive, said: “The nation now relies heavily on our community pharmacies who see millions of people needing healthcare advice every year.

Important healthcare locations

“Pharmacies have proved themselves time and again to be the most accessible healthcare locations, and without them the NHS simply could not cope.”

She added: “As many people have struggled to see their GP, they are increasingly turning to their local pharmacies instead.

“Unfortunately, pharmacy teams themselves are also facing growing pressures, and the Government must start funding them fairly if they want to protect these local healthcare centres that so many people now rely on.”

The audit, which began in 2020, took a snapshot of a day at more than 4,000 pharmacies between January to June 2022 and extrapolated the findings to cover the consultations taking place in all pharmacies in England over the year.

The figures come after some patients have struggled to see their GPs face-to-face over the last two years.

Difficulty accessing a GP

Latest official figures show 63 per cent of GP appointments were held in-person in April, compared to around 80 per cent pre-pandemic.

Dennis Reed said it was “worrying” so many patients have turned to pharmacies as they cannot access their GPs.

“There are obviously a few simple ailments where it might be just as appropriate to go to a pharmacist, but, at the end of the day, a pharmacist is trained to do pharmacy - they are not GPs,” he said.

He added there is “little difference” when it comes to accessing the GP now compared to last autumn, when the Health Secretary announced a £250 million fund to help improve the service.

“There's no sort of step change at all in the number of face-to-face appointments, and it will be a continuing worry for our people. And whether they're going to a pharmacist, to A&E, or to nowhere at all, it's unsatisfactory," he said.

The audit also found 80.3 per cent of people chose to use a pharmacy as their first port of call, up from 76 per cent in 2021.

Saving the NHS money

Half of patients would have visited the GP if they had been unable to get help from the pharmacist, saving 32.2 million GP appointments a year, the PSNC said.

The group, which represents 11,000 NHS community pharmacies in England, previously estimated that for every one million GP appointments diverted to pharmacies, the NHS would save £16 million.

The 32.2 million appointments diverted would therefore save around £515 million.

The findings come after NHS England announced a pilot to train community pharmacists to spot cancer symptoms and refer patients directly for tests, without needing to see the GP.