Patients can now see their pharmacists for seven common conditions under Rishi Sunak‘s high street healthcare ‘revolution’.
From today, more than 10,000 pharmacies in England will assess and treat patients for illnesses including sinusitis, a sore throat, earache and shingles.
Patients can also turn to chemists for impetigo, infected insect bites and uncomplicated UTIs in women under 65, without needing a GP slot or prescription.
The move is intended to boost access to care and free up 10million GP appointments a year, enabling family doctors to treat those with the most serious conditions.
The Prime Minister, whose mother ran his local pharmacy in Southampton, said the Pharmacy First approach will start a ‘mini revolution in high street healthcare’.
However, campaigners have warned that pharmacists are a ‘diluted and risky alternative’ to doctors and the scheme could see patients’ health could deteriorate.
The Prime Minister, whose mother ran his local pharmacy in Southampton, said the Pharmacy First scheme will start a ‘mini revolution in high street healthcare’
Patients can also turn to chemists for impetigo, infected insect bites and uncomplicated UTIs in women under 65, without needing a GP slot or prescription
Writing in The Telegraph, he said: ‘Local pharmacies are at the heart of our communities – and they are close to my heart too, as my mum set up and ran our local pharmacy in Southampton when I was growing up.
‘So we are launching Pharmacy First across England – starting a mini revolution in high street healthcare.
‘This new service will make it quicker, easier and more convenient for millions of people to access NHS care for common conditions. It will save people time and hassle to get the straightforward medication they need quickly.’
Mr Sunak said the reforms are ‘simple’ but amount to the biggest shake-up in pharmacy for years and will trigger benefits across the NHS.
Eight in ten people live within a 20-minute walk of a pharmacy and many have private consultation rooms, which can help put patients at ease, he noted.
The PM said: ‘Patients who need treatment or prescription medication for common conditions like an earache will now be able to get it directly from a pharmacy, without a GP appointment.
‘This is about ensuring people get the treatment they need closer to home, while crucially helping deliver on our plan to cut waiting lists, by freeing up 10million GP appointments a year, so people get the care they need more quickly.’
However, in parts of the country, chemists are already rammed as hundreds have been forced to close. Pharmacy bodies blame NHS underfunding, staff shortages and a failing GP service.
Just 11,414 community pharmacies offering key NHS services remain — the lowest level since records began in 2015/16. Almost 400 shut their doors in 2022/23 alone, statistics show.
Real-time NHS England data shows the count as of December 31, 2023 may be as little as 10,273.
Industry leaders have labelled the figures ‘alarming’ and warned patients will be forced into making longer journeys for vital treatment or ‘miss out all together’.
Meanwhile, GP numbers have plummeted in recent years. There were 27,487 GPs in December, down 6.3 per cent (from 29,320) in 2016. This is despite the population growing by around 2million over the same period.
This has led to an appointment crisis in general practice, with patients being forced to endure the 8am scramble – with only four in 10 patients securing same day appointments and three in 10 forced to wait more than a week to see their family doctor, according to latest data. Others are forced to complete an online e-consult to reach their practice.
It has forced the Government to hunt for solutions – such as introducing new phone lines to make it easier to contact surgeries and the Pharmacy First scheme, in a bid to ease demand on GPs.
Just 11,414 community pharmacies remain, official data on new openings and permanent closures in the 2022/23 financial year shows. While the number of premises closing has consistently outpaced those opening, 2022/23 marked the lowest level recorded since 2015, laying bare the demise of primary care in England
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However, Dennis Reed, head of Silver Voices, the campaign group for the over-60s, told MailOnline: ‘We have every respect for the skills of pharmacists but they are not qualified doctors.
‘What might present as symptoms for a common condition could have much more serious underlying causes, and the patient may go away from the chemist feeling reassured, only to need critical care at a later stage.
‘All these moves to delegate initial diagnoses away from GP, including Pharmacy First and the growth in physician associates are a false economy, intended to conceal the primary care crisis.
‘What we need is timely face to face appointments with a family doctor, not a diluted and risky alternative.’
The Pharmacy First scheme is backed by £645millon in funding over the next two years.
Nine in ten chemists across the country have signed up and will receive an initial lump sum of £2,000 plus £1,000 a month for providing a minimum number of appointments, as well as a £15 fee per consultation.
Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, said: ‘GPs are already treating millions more people every month than before the pandemic, but with an ageing population and growing demand, we know the NHS needs to give people more choice and make accessing care as easy as possible.’
Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, welcomed the move but warned that pharmacies are already underfunded by £1.2billion, forcing many to reduce opening hours or shut down.
She added: ‘This nonsense cannot go on and this stranglehold of chronic underfunding must be relieved now to ensure our community pharmacies continue to exist and can deliver to the potential the Government is expecting.’
Health minister Andrea Leadsom said that the country was ‘very well served’ by pharmacists, despite a reduction in their numbers across the country.
She told Times Radio: ‘We obviously keep a very close eye on pharmacies opening and closing and many do open as well as close – there have been a net reduction, but not a huge one.’
Dame Angela said the Government ‘does keep a close eye’ on their numbers and noted that they receive £2.6billion in funding per year.
She told Sky News that the new scheme will enable GPs to focus on the most complex cases, allow pharmacists to work ‘to the top of their training’ and ‘increase footfall through the pharmacy sector’.
Paul Rees, chief executive of the National Pharmacy Association, said the scheme would ‘play to the strengths of pharmacists as medicines experts’ and free up GPs.
He said: ‘Patients will get convenient clinical advice, close to where they live, work and shop.
‘The pharmacy sector is under great pressure but, despite this, pharmacy teams will step up and successfully deliver this highly beneficial service.
Latest NHS England data shows that just 67.9 per cent of the 31.5million GP appointments that took place in November were face to face
‘This could be a stepping stone to the development of other NHS clinical services in the future, as patients become familiar with going to their local pharmacy for primary care.’
It comes as doctors today warned that a ‘national health and care emergency’ should be declared over the dire state of the NHS.
The BMJ Commission on the Future of the NHS, made up of experts in medicine and healthcare, said an ‘urgent reset’ and ‘radical change’ is needed.
The group, led by Lord Nigel Crisp, a member of the House of Lords, where he co-chairs the all-party parliamentary group on global health, blamed the crisis on years of under-funding, crippling staff shortages and Britain’s ageing population.
‘The health service is in crisis, stretched beyond breaking point,’ they warned.
Wes Streeting, Labour’s health spokesman, said: ‘You would have to be living on Mars not to see that the NHS is in an emergency.
‘The BMJ is right to say that the founding principles of the NHS are as relevant today as they were 75 years ago – it is the Conservatives’ neglect over 14 years that has caused this mess.
‘They are also right to say the NHS needs a long-term plan for investment and reform if it is to survive.
‘That’s how the last Labour government delivered the shortest waits and the highest patient satisfaction in history. We did it before and we will do it again.’