Pharmacy First

The launch of the NHS’s Pharmacy First scheme on 31st January 2024 has been heralded as a potential game changer for patient care. By enabling community pharmacies to prescribe and treat seven common ailments* it is hoped that the Pharmacy First scheme will enhance care options whilst freeing up GP time. So much so that with more than 10,000 pharmacies having signed up to the new scheme, the expectation is that if the scheme is a success it could lead to the freeing up of some ten million GP appointments each year.

Commenting on the Pharmacy First scheme David Webb, Chief Pharmaceutical Officer for England, said: “Pharmacy teams play a very important role in the community as part of the integrated NHS primary care team, and this expansion of clinical services means patients will have more choice in accessing the care they need. This will give people more convenient options at the heart of local communities, without needing to book an appointment.” Meanwhile the Chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in England, Ms Tase Oputu, commented that: “Pharmacy First is a leap forward in improving patient care” adding that the scheme not only “empowers patients with greater choice on where and how they receive care, but also makes the most of the valuable skills of pharmacists and their teams.” 

Louise Ansari, Chief Executive, Healthwatch England, also highlighted the potential benefits to be gained from greater flexibility but went on to caution that it will “take time for pharmacists to get trained and ready for change.” This is key to the success of the Pharmacy First scheme which is dependent on having enough trained pharmacists to meet public need.

If the idea of walk-in appointments and one-to-one consultations with a pharmacist catches on, then there is an acknowledged danger that demand will outstrip supply.  Particularly so as pharmacies are already offering a blood pressure check service and contraception services. This increased demand on pharmaceutical time could lead to patients turning back to GP services for pharmacy-treatable conditions if they experience long waits at their local pharmacy.

Nevertheless, the Pharmacy First initiative is yet another example of the way in which health approaches are broadening away from the ‘traditional’ GP led model and towards a more flexible offering. With patients being able to access the most appropriate treatment model for them the future could see direct approaches to a broad spectrum of health and social care providers. If individuals are able to see pharmacists for minor ailments, physiotherapists or osteopaths for musculoskeletal conditions, counsellors for mental health conditions, and so on then it could help them to take control of and better manage their health journey.

Spreading out health treatments in this way does though rely on the maintenance of a unified health record. Being able to scan and share patient notes could help clinicians to have a better grasp of the overall picture and to ensure that treatments offered are appropriate within an overall care plan.

* The seven ailments covered by the Pharmacy First Scheme are: Sinusitis, Sore Throat, Earache, Infected Insect Bites, Impetigo, Shingles, Uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women.