Making Pharmacy First work: The need for further innovation

gentleman at pharmacy counter

The launch of Pharmacy First marks a significant shift in UK healthcare. Pharmacies are taking on a more central role as the initial point of contact for patients. They are now equipped to address seven common health concerns, including sinusitis, sore throats, earaches, insect bites, impetigo, shingles, and UTIs in women. This expansion means easier access to essential medical care right from your local pharmacy.

The goal is to ease the strain on our overstretched NHS, which faces a waiting list exceeding 7.6 million individuals. While community pharmacies are ideally positioned to assist the NHS in this endeavour, the reality is that they are facing significant operational challenges. Staff shortages, funding reductions, and heavy workloads place immense pressure on pharmacies, hindering their ability to fully support the NHS as intended.

Pharmacy First promises to harness the complete capabilities of community pharmacies to make a positive difference in UK healthcare. However, a crucial gap needs bridging in terms of what pharmacists can achieve. To fully empower pharmacies and unleash their potential, they must embrace digitalisation. This will ensure their competitiveness in an ever-changing business environment.

Putting pharmacies first: Benefits and limitations?

Community pharmacies can potentially transform UK healthcare, offering a chance to enhance the accessibility of patient care significantly if utilised effectively. However, despite concerted efforts, a widespread lack of awareness remains regarding the invaluable contributions pharmacies make to the healthcare system.

Insights from a Charac survey conducted last March, for example, revealed a surprising trend: only 13% of customers knew the full scope of services available at local pharmacies. Instead, many limited their pharmacy visits to addressing common colds and picking up prescriptions. Another survey, conducted just before the launch of Pharmacy First, showed that only 23% of patients utilised pharmacies for treating minor conditions. However, this percentage increased significantly to 56% once patients were informed about the Pharmacy First initiative. The introduction of Pharmacy First is expected to enhance community awareness and bolster confidence in pharmacy services, particularly given that patient trust in pharmacies has historically trailed behind other healthcare providers.

Nevertheless, community pharmacies are grappling with overwhelming workloads and chronic underfunding. Presently, UK pharmacies are confronted with an annual funding deficit of £750 million. Despite the government's commitment to inject £645 million into the sector, this financial support alone may not be adequate. Before the introduction of Pharmacy First, a survey conducted by the Pharmacists Defence Association (PDA) revealed a stark reality: although 90% of pharmacies had enrolled in the Pharmacy First programme, only a mere 4% believed they could fulfil its commitments while simultaneously managing their operations, citing insufficient funding and capacity as primary concerns.

The pursuit of effective care: Digitising community pharmacies

Digital transformation presents an exciting opportunity for community pharmacies to enhance their capabilities in handling newfound responsibilities. With over 30 million citizens engaging with the NHS digital app last year, it is evident that healthtech has brought significant advancements to UK healthcare. Pharmacies can capitalise on these benefits by embracing digital innovations, enabling them to elevate their services further and better serve their communities.

As community pharmacies evolve, there's an exciting opportunity to update traditional processes, such as paper-based record-keeping. By transitioning to modern systems, pharmacies can enhance prescription management and streamline communication channels. This proactive approach ensures the reliability and security of patient information. It strengthens pharmacies' ability to deliver on the promises of initiatives like Pharmacy First, fostering improved healthcare experiences for all.

Advancing digital transformation within pharmacies will enhance service clarity and accessibility across the board, ultimately leading to a more efficient healthcare ecosystem and alleviating administrative burdens. Nearly 40% of pharmacy calls stem from prescription clarity issues, underscoring the need for additional digital solutions. By centralising vital information online, pharmacies can foster collaborative care, ensuring seamless communication and enhancing patient outcomes.

Moreover, digital services will empower pharmacies to swiftly approve and schedule deliveries for new prescriptions with a simple click, thus streamlining what was once a time-consuming and distracting administrative process. This efficiency gain will enable pharmacies to redirect focus towards assessing the implementation of Pharmacy First and their own services, facilitating necessary improvements for enhanced patient care.

Enhanced digitisation will improve patient outcomes and foster equitable healthcare access. Online booking for consultations and prescriptions enhances the availability of essential medications, especially vital for individuals in need or those with physical limitations hindering in-person pharmacy visits. By making pharmacy care more convenient and accessible, patients are encouraged to embrace and trust pharmacies' evolving role in primary care.

Innovating primary care

It is evident that Pharmacy First is set to revolutionise our healthcare approach. With added responsibilities, this initiative will prompt community pharmacies to play a more active role in primary care. In leveraging their considerable expertise, pharmacies can alleviate strain on the NHS and offer a solution to our current healthcare challenges.

However, the digitalisation of our pharmacies is essential to maximise the success of Pharmacy First. Embracing digital services will not only enhance the accessibility of primary care, but also elevate patient outcomes significantly. Patients will enjoy the convenience of easily scheduling deliveries and consultations, while pharmacists will have access to valuable data-driven insights to personalise proactive action plans. This technological advancement will effectively address the challenges faced by community pharmacies, revitalising them and instilling greater confidence in patients. Pharmacy First presents an exciting opportunity for pharmacies to embrace innovation wholeheartedly, fulfilling their pivotal role as the first point of contact for primary care and ultimately contributing to a more efficient and effective healthcare sector.

Santosh Sahu
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Santosh Sahu
12 April, 2024