The eighth annual Sigma conference gave pharmacists the chance to debate the government’s swingeing cuts and try to escape the inescapable. Neil Trainis reports from Ocho Rios, Jamaica…
One imagines, ministerial rules aside, it might have been difficult to lure a government figurehead or Department of Health official to the land of Bob Marley and Usain Bolt despite Sigma Pharmaceutical’s ability to attract healthcare luminaries to its international conferences.
After all, storm clouds quickly gathered to the backdrop of Caribbean sunshine. Little surprise given that community pharmacy is making concerted efforts to show it has teeth despite Kirit Patel’s suggestion delivered during this event that for unity and organisation, the British Medical Association should be given 10 out of 10 and pharmacy four.
Perhaps the social care minister Alistair Burt felt more comfortable delivering a recorded message to the conference instead of standing on the stage at the Moon Palace Hotel before an audience of disillusioned, frankly cheesed off pharmacists. As it turned out his message was not one that filled many hearts with hope.
“(There will be) reductions in the amount of NHS funding for community pharmacists in England. However, the sum will remain significant, with £2.63 billion in funding in 2016-17,” he said.
“I want to emphasise that our aim is to secure efficiencies and make savings. It is not our aim to close pharmacies. The average pharmacy receives £220,000 in NHS funding annually.
“In some parts of the country there may be more pharmacies than are necessary to maintain good access.”
No doubt others from the Department of Health and NHS England who sat in that meeting with the PSNC to discuss the ramifications of that dreaded December 17 letter might have said they were too busy to travel to the Jamaican town of Ocho Rios to face the frustrations, the anger, the vitriol of pharmacists who had made the journey.
From the start it was clear this was a conference that was going to be consumed by the government’s controversial efficiency plans for pharmacy.
“The timing of this conference is very important in light of some real challenges and changes posed for pharmacy in the UK,” said Bharat Shah, the managing director of Sigma, as he opened proceedings.
“As you know Sigma is a family business built on strong ties and it is my vision that retail pharmacy in the UK becomes one family.”
Dr Keith Ridge, the chief pharmaceutical officer and a signatory to the December 17 letter, would not have enjoyed the musings of Mike Smith, a non-executive advisor at Alliance Healthcare and not renowned for being a shrinking violet.
“I think we have a real challenge with the Department of Health,” he said. “I don’t actually think Keith Ridge and his colleagues understand what we actually do for our patients because of the desire to close 3,000 (pharmacies which) demonstrates to me a complete lack of strategic thinking and planning about our profession and just how valuable we are to the communities we serve.”
Soon Royal Pharmaceutical Society president Ash Soni was asking Sue Sharpe, who spoke in charactersitically blunt fashion on the cuts via video link from London, if she believed a chunk of the £170 million reduction for 2016-17 will be shouldered by the multiples.
“In terms of multiples’ profit, I think there’s a little bit of kneejerk reaction that if multiples are in this market, we must be paying too much money, which is rubbish,” Sharpe said.
“In terms of the funding for years two and three, I don’t know what is going to be coming but we shouldn’t assume that this is it. We have to recognise that this government is tasked to try and save £22 billion over the five years to 2020-21 and I think it would be overly optimistic to assume the savings they want from pharmacy are those and only those that they have announced in this letter.” She ominously added that “the Treasury is always behind the funding settlements.”
There were brief diversions from funding misery. Ryan Olohan, national industry director at Google Healthcare, revealed there are 420 million online searches each year for pharmacy in the UK, including millions of searches for pharmacy on YouTube.
David Mitchell, a one-time mainstay of Johnson & Johnson and nowadays a healthcare consultant, asked delegates if they had sufficient information to drive OTC sales. The response – 48% said no.
He would go on to reveal that 13 out of 15 leading OTC categories are in growth, the exceptions being smoking cessation and hayfever.
Despite the gloom, the Sigma conference did provide a chance for delegates to unwind. There were Jamaican and Indian-themed dinners, a Pirates of the Caribbean night and the chance to swim with dolphins.
It was the chance for pharmacists to escape from the inescapable. If only for a short while.