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Amidst growing pressure on primary care and GPs, the pharmacy body in Northern Ireland urged the department of health to take a holistic view to ensure that people have access to appropriate health services as and when they need them.

The latest call for collaboration between community pharmacies and GPs by the Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland (CPNI) follows difficulties being experienced by many patients getting through to their local GPs.

The CPNI believes that the time has come for a new approach to accessing health care through community pharmacies as they have been successfully managing the Covid-19 pandemic pressure, flu vaccination, among others.

Speaking at the Assembly Health Committee recently, deputy chair of the health committee Pam Cameron MLA noted anecdotally that it took her around 125 attempts to get through to her local GP, a trend that is all too common within the current system.

Community pharmacies already see around 123,000 people or nine per cent of the population everyday throughout Northern Ireland and with investment would have capacity to take on further responsibilities, reduce the severe bottlenecks seen in general practice and maximise the use of over 530 community pharmacies located across Northern Ireland.

Chair of the CPNI Board, James McCaughan, who also runs McCaughan Chemist in Ballycastle, said: “The answer is not to just invest more in general practice; it has to run much deeper than that. The Department needs to conduct a review of the whole system and how it is currently operating. It needs to take account of where there is capacity, where investment should be concentrated, and how we can support GPs to continue to provide timely care to sick patients.

“What is abundantly clear throughout the pandemic is that the current system just is not working for patients. Community pharmacy has built strong working relationships with our colleagues in general practice, we now need to see the Department working to ensure that we can get the best possible outcomes at this time with the health service stretched to its absolute limit.

“I was astounded to hear one MLA recall having to make well over 100 calls to their local GP before getting through, whilst another member told the committee about a constituent being directed to the Emergency Department for a throat issue which, along with so many minor ailments, can be treated through community pharmacy.”

Chief executive of Community Pharmacy NI Gerard Greene said: “While there are pressures in general practice, we in Community Pharmacy have been experiencing similar and additional issues and consequently dealing with a significantly increased workload. However, as we start to come out of Covid we have reached a point where something simply must be done to address the issues and improve patient access to health care.

“If we are seriously committed to the transformation of the health service, we need to start to think strategically about investment and resources to make our services work properly as soon as possible and displace the bottlenecking at GP surgeries.

“Community pharmacists have helped deliver the annual winter flu vaccination programme, the Covid-19 vaccination, and other minor ailment services that can keep people away from GP waiting lines, a point recognised by the chair of the Health Committee, Colm Gildernew. Through a collaborative approach between GPs, community pharmacy and the Department, a new way of working can and must be found.”

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