Pharmacy First: Why technology is necessary for safeguarding pharmacies

digital safeguarding

The challenges facing UK healthcare are abundantly clear. With satisfaction in primary care reaching record lows of 29%,1and over 60% of NHS patients waiting 18 weeks on average for treatment,2change is needed to revitalise this struggling sector.

The Government has proposed a solution – a ‘Pharmacy First’ policy, where pharmacies act as the first port of call for minor conditions, in order to help reduce the load on GPs. As part of this proposal, the Government has promised over £645m to community pharmacies over the next two years,3to close the funding gap that has widened due to inflation.

While this is the right step forwards, the funding does little to address the issues that community pharmacies are facing. UK pharmacies suffer from chronic underfunding, seeing an annual shortfall of over £750m (nearly £67,000 per pharmacy),4and with staff vacancies doubling since 2017,5they are ill-prepared to take on these enhanced responsibilities. Sadly, since 2015, more than 400 community pharmacies have closed in the UK, with the number of active community pharmacies now in freefall.6

A continued overreliance on manual processes and outdated systems means that pharmacies will struggle to operate at their full potential and deliver on the expectations of ‘Pharmacy First’. The sector must overcome its structural inefficiencies to take on a more proactive role in healthcare. For this to happen, a much stronger emphasis must be placed on pharmacies’ approach to adopting technology, to future-proof their operations and improve patient outcomes.

Safeguarding pharmacists

Across primary care, practitioners and nurses are expected to keep rigorous patient records in order to properly monitor actions taken on patients. Pharmacies, however, do not have this same requirement, despite an estimated 1.6 million people visiting their local pharmacy each day.7This means that there are potentially thousands of patient interactions unrecorded in the current system, which is sure to increase with the implementation of ‘Pharmacy First’.

These gaps in record keeping are a consequence of a reliance on legacy digital infrastructure. A survey of UK pharmacies between September 2021 and September 2022 revealed that over half of community pharmacies experienced one IT showdown a month and more than 40% described themselves as having ‘limited’ internet connectivity,8with numerous pharmacies still relying on paper records. Many community pharmacies, therefore, have neither the resources nor the capacity to efficiently keep detailed and digital patient records.

Without proper records, it becomes arduous to determine what aspects of primary care patients have engaged with, as well as how effective they were. This can negatively impact patient outcomes when patients visit other care providers without details of any previous treatments. Patients could then be given inappropriate care – with pharmacists liable for this. Such weaknesses in processes need to be eliminated if pharmacies are to take on a more active healthcare role, and digitalisation can aid this process.

Electronic health records (EHRs) offer real benefits, most notably in terms of a streamlined and secure way of storing patient data. This enables both patients and other healthcare providers to access necessary patient data on demand. A standardised digital system will increase interoperability between care services, while making the ordering of repeat treatments and new appointments easier through the use of apps.

Altogether, the adoption of technology to improve manual processes will save time and money that pharmacies can direct to other matters, such as improving personalised care for patients and increasing revenue.

Protecting patients

Enhanced healthtech innovation, moreover, will allow pharmacies to further improve end-to-end patient care, through strengthening the interoperability between primary care organisations. Increasing communication between healthcare providers is essential to help salvage the healthcare system in a period where dissatisfaction with the NHS has reached a record height of 51%.9

The NHS App’s Mobile First scheme will enable pharmacies to use wider NHS databases to hasten communication with the necessary public health bodies, allowing pharmacies to more easily source relevant prescriptions and treatments. Such a change will further enhance the operational efficiency of pharmacies, allowing them to become a more robust source of primary care.

Standardisation and compatibility across the healthcare sector will promote better communication and cooperation between community pharmacies, the NHS, and other care providers, which strengthens their ability to protect their patients.

The value of continued digitalisation

Ultimately, adopting new technology is essential to stabilising the future of our community pharmacies. The Government’s commitment to a ‘Pharmacy First’ approach is certainly a step in the right direction, but will only be successful if pharmacies are adequately prepared and resourced to manage their increased responsibilities.

Community pharmacies will need technology to succeed in a post-‘Pharmacy First’ environment. Digital healthcare apps are growing in popularity, with platforms such as Charac aiming to streamline processes at all levels. These applications allow pharmacies to save on operational costs, improve digital marketing, and increase the efficiency and accessibility of care for patients, such as providing remote consultations and online delivery of repeat prescriptions. Platforms like Charac also support interoperability and communication between primary care bodies.

The success of the Government’s ‘Pharmacy First’ approach remains dependent on the ability of community pharmacies to adapt to the changing digital landscape. To not only stay afloat, but to thrive in the future, pharmacies must embrace technological innovation.


Santosh Sahu
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Santosh Sahu