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Independents in need of a voice

By Neil Trainis

PUBLISHED: February 10, 2017 | UPDATED: February 10, 2017

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In the wake of Pharmacy Voice’s demise, what does the future hold for independent pharmacy representation, asks Pharmacy Business editor Neil Trainis


It does not seem all that long ago that Ian Facer stood before the who’s who of the pharmacy and pharmaceutical worlds to convey the sense that the prospects of community pharmacists and their teams in the NHS was about to get markedly better.

There he stood in the Whitehall Suite before an assortment of healthcare luminaries to reveal the much-anticipated launch of Pharmacy Voice, an organisation made up of three pharmacy bodies (National Pharmacy Association, Company Chemists’ Association and Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies). As the name suggested, Pharmacy Voice was to be the panacea for a disease that had afflicted community pharmacy representation for years; fragmentation.

For longer than pharmacists cared to remember, there had been too many voices speaking up for them. Suddenly it appeared their views, their concerns, their fears, their hopes would be communicated to decision-makers by one clear voice. There was a feeling that February 16, 2011 was their D-Day.

“We have created Pharmacy Voice to represent community pharmacy more effectively, with one stronger, unified voice,” Facer, the new body’s chairman (pictured), exclaimed.

“It is only by bringing together the whole sector, independents and multiples, that we can truly pursue a coherent vision and achieve our potential. We have talked long enough about the need to work together, this time it has to be for real.”

Many saw Pharmacy Voice as the tonic for a profession crying out for unity. “I welcome the launch of Pharmacy Voice because it is a step forward. I am very pleased to see this development and we look forward to continuing to work with our colleagues. There is an archetecture of change taking place with (pharmacy’s regulatory) bodies but (Pharmacy Voice) is a good thing. But let’s wait and see. This is just the first step,” enthused Dr Christopher Hodges, then chairman of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee.

Anticipation lingered in the air. “It is a very positive thing,” Ian Hunter, head of pharmacy at Pfizer, remarked. “The amalgamation of (NPA, CCA and AIMp) will put right a lot of the difficulties of the past.

“Pharmacy has been weak for a long time, largely because its voice has been divided. This is a chance to reorganise. It’s a chance for more scope for the bodies to function on the same level. Pharmacy needs to present itself with a constant voice and show the policy makers what it can do.”

The chief pharmaceutical officer Dr Keith Ridge described Pharmacy Voice as “a step in the right direction” and insisted it was “long overdue.”

Rob Darracott, unveiled as the organisation’s chief executive and who has remained in the role for the last six years, said Pharmacy Voice would allow community pharmacy “to shape the future” and “create our own destiny.”

“Pharmacy and pharmacists should own the medicines pathway throughout the patient journey. We are in a challenging, rapidly changing NHS environment and we cannot allow ourselves to be pulled along in a slipstream of change,” he said. Six years on those words reverberate abrasively given the funding cuts the government has thrust on community pharmacy.

Kevin Barron, chairman of the All-Party Pharmacy Group, was not reticent when it came to expressing his thoughts on community pharmacy’s new ‘voice.’

“I warmly welcome the creation of Pharmacy Voice which promises to unite the community pharmacy sector, putting it in a strong position to reach out and build relationships with other partners in health care delivery. This approach will be essential if community pharmacy is to achieve its potential.”

Not that everybody warmed to Pharmacy Voice. Pharmacist Sultan ‘Sid’ Dajani would describe it as “Corporate Voice” shortly after its launch. Fast forward six years and he was not dishearted by news that it would disband next year following the NPA’s decision to withdraw its support. “If PV was the TRUE Voice 4 Pharmacy, it should’ve included PSNC & RPS too,” he tweeted.

Those perturbed by the impending loss of Pharmacy Voice however are almost certainly in the majority. Celesio managing director Cormac Tobin said he was “disappointed that Pharmacy Voice has had to disband after the NPA’s decision to withdraw its participation.”

In light of Pharmacy Voice’s highly publicised Community Pharmacy Forward View and its sequel, ambitious but very achievable visions which aim to place pharmacists at the heart of healthcare, it was not the ideal time for the NPA to announce a split.

“After such a turbulent time of late, with changes to community pharmacy funding and calls from the government for the sector to evolve and the positive strategic direction of the Community Pharmacy Forward View, the sector needs strong leadership and unity to secure a brighter future. We have much more work to do,” Tobin said.

Numark managing director John D’Arcy said it was “disappointing but not surprising that Pharmacy Voice has decided to close its doors following the decision by the National Pharmacy Association to discontinue its support.”

He would go on to claim the NPA had “issues with Pharmacy Voice” without clarifying what he thought those issues were.

It must be said the NPA has made a determined effort to ensure it is wholly geared to the needs of independent pharmacies after years of disquiet from independents who questioned what it was they were getting for their NPA membership.

A few years ago, the organisation underwent something of a rebirth culminating in a renewed, intense focus on supporting independents. Since then the NPA has seen itself, with a great deal of pride, as the representative body for independents, a mentality which manifested itself in its relentlessly fierce defence of independents in the face of those swingeing funding cuts.

One theory is that, after nearly six years, it felt it needed to detach itself from Pharmacy Voice, which fought pharmacy’s corner effectively but had that multiple pharmacy dimension which the NPA was keen to distance itself from. As far as the NPA was concerned, it was all about independents.

That was something NPA chairman Ian Strachan alluded to when he revealed he had been asked by his board to consider “a simpler structure for community pharmacy representation, that everyone inside and outside the sector can understand.”

An NPA spokesperson would later tell Pharmacy Business: “We agree that unity and coherence are intrinsically good things and we will continue to work with colleagues from across the sector wherever that serves the interests of independents. But we will not shy away from articulating the particular needs and aspirations of the independent sector.”

The doom-mongers will say the NPA’s decision to go it alone will see the re-emergence of fractures in pharmacy representation that Pharmacy Voice did well to smooth over. Cynics might say pharmacy representation will end up with yet another pharmacy body trying to tell its narrative to decision-makers at the expense of the profession’s unity.

The NPA, on the other hand, has been a force for good as far as independents are concerned, even if some view their split as counterproductive to the whole of pharmacy. The question is will they be able to continue driving the interests of independents without Pharmacy Voice? It certainly appears Pharmacy Voice need the NPA a lot more than the NPA needs Pharmacy Voice.

“Our decision is not based on any past failures, nor is it a comment on the capability or contribution of PV staff and working groups, who have produced some really useful work; it’s about the future, not the past,” added the NPA spokesperson.

Perhaps independents should be encouraged that the NPA has acted decisively in breaking away. They will hope it is a sign the 96-year-old organisation is not only intent on maintaining their fight and supporting them but is fully equipped to do so in the coming years.