- By Aurelia Foster and Hugh Pym
- Medical reporter and medical editor
Treatments for seven conditions such as sore throat and earache are now available directly from pharmacists without the need to visit a doctor.
The First pharmacy The scheme will allow most chemists in the UK to dispense certain medicines to patients without the need for an appointment or referral.
NHS England says it will free up around 10 million GP appointments a year.
Pharmaceutical groups welcomed the move but had concerns about funding and the recent closure of chemists.
Under the new service, pharmacists can carry out confidential consultations and advise whether any treatment, including antibiotics, is needed for a list of seven minor illnesses.
Patients who require specialist care or more monitoring will be referred onwards.
What medications can a pharmacist provide now?
- sore throat
- ear hurt
- Insect bites become infected
- uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women
Patients can access the new service by going straight to a pharmacy or being referred by NHS 111, urgent treatment centres, emergency departments or their GP. People who are not registered with GP can still access the service.
If one of the seven conditions is diagnosed, the pharmacist can supply the medicine to the patient instead of sending it back to their GP,
You can also buy emergency contraceptive pills and have your blood pressure checked at most pharmacies in the UK. Some offer advice on how to quit smoking, how to lose weight, and screening for and treating chlamydia, a common sexually transmitted disease.
What happens at a consultation?
The pharmacist will ask about your symptoms and possibly about any previous medical problems. They can ask for consent to inspect a patient’s health record if they can access it.
For some conditions, a pharmacist may perform tests – for example, checking a patient’s ears.
This allows them to recommend the best course of action for each patient, which may include over-the-counter treatments such as creams or ointments, a limited set of prescription-only medications, or advice that the problem The problem will disappear on its own.
The consultation will be recorded and shared with GPs to add to the patient record.
Will more antibiotics be given?
Tase Oputu, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) in the UK, said there is a strict process for providing medicines for each of the seven diseases.
That includes providing information, advice and symptom relief before providing antibiotics, if needed.
Antibiotics are used to treat or prevent bacterial infections, but are not effective against viruses such as colds and flu.
Their overuse in the past has meant they have become less effective at fighting serious infections – known as antibiotic resistance.
NHS England said the new service would be “constantly” scrutinized in case there was any impact on that matter.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where the service is active, the RPS said there was no evidence of an increase in the amount of antibiotics provided.
‘A lot of choice’
NHS England said more than 90% of community chemists had signed up to provide the new service.
They were paid £2,000 each and would receive £15 per consultation plus an additional £1,000 per month if they saw a certain minimum number of patients.
Similar services are already being provided in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard called it “fantastic news for patients”.
She said: “GPs are already treating millions more people every month than before the pandemic – but with an aging population and growing demand, we know the NHS needs to give people more options and make accessing care as easy as possible.”
RPS calls this a “leap forward” in patient care.
‘Easier than keeping GP’
Ade Williams, who trialled the scheme at Bedminster Pharmacy, in Bristol, told BBC News: “One of your frustrations as a pharmacist is that you have patients coming in and then you want help them – but then you can’t come in. That’s a really big problem for us.
“You feel more satisfied and it’s wonderful when patients come back and say, ‘I’m better now – it worked’.”
Ali McKerrow, whose young son was given impetigo cream at the pharmacy, said the program would help working parents.
“It can be really difficult to get an appointment with a family doctor,” she said.
“I was about to run to school and just popped in here on the way – it’s so much easier than holding the phone.”
They will also increase the number of blood pressure checks.
But there are concerns about pharmacy closures. Last year, BBC News analysis found that the number of chemists in the UK had fallen to its lowest level since 2015.
And the Association of Independent Pharmacies has warned that community pharmacies in England are “severely underfunded”.
Chief executive Dr Leyla Hannbeck welcomed the plan but said that without greater funding, “more pharmacies will close and more workload will be shifted to remaining pharmacies” .
NHS England said £645 million had been invested over two years to expand services provided by community pharmacies.
Why are Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ahead of England?
The reality is that pharmacists in the UK have been pushing for a scheme of this nature for some time and the government in Westminster has not acted as quickly as they would have liked.
Scotland’s Pharmacy First Plus scheme is seen as a model for England. Launched in 2020, the service is currently available in less than a third of pharmacies in Scotland but the aim is to make it accessible in all communities.
Northern Ireland’s service predates Scotland’s launch, although the list of conditions that can be treated is more limited.
Wales has a Common Sickness scheme which does not cover as many cases as England and Scotland.
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