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Healthwatch England report reveals challenges faced by patients using pharmacies

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Patients are receptive to Pharmacy First service, but some challenges must be overcome to achieve its full potential, says Healthwatch England 

A recent report from Healthwatch England has highlighted that while people highly value the accessibility of community pharmacies, both in terms of location and prompt service, they also encounter challenges in getting the most out of their pharmacy care experience.

The report titled ‘Pharmacy: What People’ is based on the research conducted by the organisation in November last year, involving 1,650 people who shared their experiences of pharmacy services in England.

It showed the country’s notable dependence on community pharmacies, with 72 per cent of respondents saying they have used a community pharmacy in the past three months.

Usage of online pharmacies is considerably lower than community pharmacies, with only 18 per cent of individuals having used an online pharmacy in the past three months, according to the report published on Tuesday (30 April).

However, closures of pharmacies, supply shortages and rising costs are negatively affecting patients using pharmacies.

Medicine shortages turned out to be a major issue, as 42 per cent of respondents reported experiencing problems getting medicine from their pharmacy in the past 12 months.

Almost one in four (24 per cent) people have experienced their pharmacy being out of the medicine(s) they need in the past 12 months, the report revealed.

Although 90 per cent of prescriptions in England are dispensed free of charge, the cost-of-living crisis impacts pharmacy usage. As per the report, five per cent of people have avoided taking up one or more NHS prescriptions because of the price.

Pharmacy closures, especially temporary closures, are also affecting people’s health and care.

One in fifteen people experienced problems getting medicine in the past year because the pharmacy unexpectedly closed when they visited.

People are receptive to Pharmacy First

The research, which was conducted before the Pharmacy First service was launched in England, found that people were already open to the idea of going to a pharmacy rather than a GP for common conditions.

Pharmacy First was introduced in January 2024, empowering pharmacies to treat seven common conditions: earache, sore throat, sinusitis, impetigo, shingles, infected insect bite, uncomplicated urinary tract infections.

People were more likely to go to a pharmacy rather than a GP for five of the seven conditions. The exceptions were shingles and UTIs.

The report noted that while Pharmacy First can be successful in directing people away from the GP for these conditions, it must overcome some challenges to achieve its full potential.

“Raising awareness that pharmacies offer new services will be crucial to the success of Pharmacy First,” the report recommended, while also stressing the need for pharmacies to have private consultation spaces to ensure people feel comfortable talking about sensitive issues.

Recommendations from Healthwatch

Healthwatch is calling on the government to issue targeted communications to raise awareness of the Pharmacy First service, improve awareness and availability of prescription prepayment certificates to address prescription cost barriers, and undertake a review of the medicines supply chain to address shortages.

Also, it is urging the government to provide more support to pharmacy teams, including improved IT systems, more funding, action on workforce shortages, and support with pharmacy premises.

In the longer term, Healthwatch is calling for further expansion of Pharmacy First and a solution to ensure IT systems used across primary care are interoperable.

Comments from industry leaders

Commenting on the report, Janet Morrison, CEO of Community Pharmacy England, said: “Patients are at the heart of everything that community pharmacies do and this Healthwatch England project has provided some valuable insights into patients’ perspectives.

“It is no surprise to hear of the positive patient views of Pharmacy First, nor to see how much patients are being impacted by medicines supply issues. Despite being in crisis, community pharmacies are working incredibly hard to protect their patients from the impact of these pressures.”

She added that CPE will continue to work collaboratively with Healthwatch England and other organisations in their efforts to ensure sustainable funding and future service developments for community pharmacies.

Tase Oputu, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) England Board, commented that the report reflected the continued concern raised by its members about the impact of medicines shortages on patients and pharmacy teams.

She pressed upon the government to ease shortages by “updating medicines legislation to enable community pharmacists to make minor amendments to prescriptions to adjust the strength or formulation.”

“Pharmacists are really keen to use their skills to better support patients through new services such as Pharmacy First. As we ask pharmacy teams to do more, this must be backed up by enhanced communications and seamless IT systems, alongside sustainable funding and investment in the workforce,” Oputu said.

Gisela Abbam, chair of the General Pharmaceutical Council, noted that the recommendations from Healthwatch need careful consideration by “everyone working across pharmacy and the NHS in England, as well as the government.”

She added that the GPhC has initiated discussions on how to respond to the important issues raised in this report, and anticipates working closely with Healthwatch England going forward.

Nicola Stockmann, president, Association of Pharmacy Technicians UK described the report as “valuable” and said that APTUK is looking forward to collaborating with Healthwatch to “expand the focus for pharmacy technicians and the wider pharmacy team as part of the pharmacy workforce.”

 

 

 

 

 

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