There are 57 million GP consultations a year for minor ailments that don’t need input from a doctor. If a fraction of these were diverted to pharmacy, the NHS would benefit hugely. Marvin Munzu explains…


Although we may be experiencing something of an Indian summer, for the NHS the focus is firmly on preparations for the winter months. It is well documented that in recent years A&E departments have faced multiple winter crises: last year there were reports of waiting times reaching 12 hours as the NHS struggled to cope with increased demand.

To combat this growing challenge, planning has been taking place all year round and it’s not just A&E departments that are under scrutiny. Recent reports have revealed that the average waiting time for a GP appointment is two weeks and during the winter months this pressure is expected to intensify as more patients visit the GP for winter ailments.

According to research conducted by the Self Care Forum, there are 57 million GP consultations a year for minor ailments that do not need input from a doctor. If even a fraction of these visits for minor ailments were diverted to the pharmacist, this could have a dramatic impact for the NHS and consumers alike.

As a result, self-care has become a point of emphasis across the sector, with the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, the NHS and Public Health England all driving forward initiatives to encourage patients to think twice about going to the surgery for minor ailments.

This is where community pharmacists can play an integral role this winter, positioning themselves as the alternative to the doctor’s surgery. Although for certain individuals classified as high-risk, it may be essential to refer the patient to a GP. In most instances the pharmacist can help the consumer to deal with minor ailments directly.

In fact, several developments in the last year have helped to empower the pharmacist ahead of the winter season. The NHS has given pharmacies the ability to offer the adjuvanted trivalent vaccine (aTIV) to over-65s onsite.

Furthermore, the NHS innovation accelerator is advocating its sore throat test and treat initiative where patients can turn to their pharmacist to receive screening and point of care testing, further reducing visits to the GP.

This service enables pharmacists to recommend the best course of action for patients, only suggesting antibiotics for those who have evidence of a bacterial infection.

These developments have empowered pharmacists to make informed decisions on which coughs and other ailments require further medical treatment and which are suitable for self-care. In most cases pharmacists can recommend action to take at home and offer remedies to help soothe symptoms.

When this is the case, here are some of the top tips you can offer your customers, not only to alleviate their symptoms but to position you as their expert for the winter months.

How to steer clear of a sore throat:

• Breathe easy – Breathing through the nose, rather than the mouth, is a wonderful way to filter the air we breathe of bacteria and other harmful irritants before they enter the body. The nose is a miraculous filter lined with tiny hairs called cilia which help to filter, humidify and warm or cool the air we breathe, therefore protecting our bodies against foreign particles.

• Swallow – Swallowing regularly helps to cleanse the throat. Saliva keeps our mouths healthy and prevents infections by controlling bacteria and fungi in the mouth. The natural saliva our bodies produce helps to rinse the throat of any unwanted bacteria that could contribute to a sore throat.

• Shower power – The humid environment of a steamy bathroom when relaxing in a hot bath or shower can help prevent the lining of the throat from becoming too dry and irritated – a common cause of a sore throat.

• Brush it off – If you’re plagued with a sore throat that seems to come back time and time again, buy a new toothbrush. Bacteria collects on the bristles and if you injure your gums as you brush, they can enter your system and re-infect you.

What to advise when a sore throat strikes:

• Cut the conversation – Resting your voice and keeping conversation to a minimum will help to aid your recovery from a sore throat. Instead of a lengthy conversation, try opting for text, email or note communication. Likewise, sleep is essential for the recovery process. Getting a good night’s sleep helps the body’s immune system fight off viruses and bacteria that can be causing a sore throat.

• Suck to soothe – Sucking on menthol cough sweets, such as Jakemans, can help with sore throat symptoms. Each Jakemans sweet contains menthol, an ingredient that releases natural vapours to soothe discomfort and keep airways clear.

• Say hello to H₂O – Staying hydrated is vital to avoiding sore throats. When we’re dehydrated, the body can’t produce enough saliva and mucus to keep the throat naturally lubricated. This will make the swelling and inflammation of a sore throat worse. Water is ideal or warm herbal teas are also soothing.

• Avoid alcohol – Before you turn to a tipple, think again as alcohol can do more harm than good when suffering with a sore throat. The old wives’ tale that alcohol ‘disinfects’ the throat is unfortunately a myth. In fact, drinking alcohol is much more likely to irritate than soothe a sore throat.

By offering this combination of onsite testing, clear advice and trusted products, pharmacists can offer end-to-end support to the patient. This will not only help the patient and the NHS during the winter months, but also help to boost pharmacy sales and improve customer relationships, encouraging repeat visits to the pharmacist all year round.

With so many benefits for the consumer, pharmacies and the patient, it’s time for pharmacists to work in close partnership with the health service to face these challenges – during the winter and beyond.


Marvin Munzu is a leading community pharmacist and Jakemans expert.