Mark Baffoe-Bonnie from Touchwood Pharmacy, Bromley, explains to Rachel Carter about the benefits of their food allergy testing service

Why did you start offering this service?

The service started in 2018. It was part and parcel of expanding our offering. The classic model of pharmacists dispensing is not enough nowadays, not with the Department of Health and Social Care cuts, so we’ve got to seek further income streams and this is one of them.

How much did it cost to set up the service?

The only set up cost was the training really. That was in the region of a couple of hundred pounds - you’ve got to send off your pharmacist to do the training and then there's the cost of getting a locum in to cover them as well.

What, if any, training did you or other team members have to undergo?

A one-day training course organised by the company that sell the testing kits. This involves understanding the process of how the haemoglobin tests identify the allergens and a practical aspect on how to sample the blood without hurting the patient, the amount of blood you need to take, how to incubate, how to use the diagnostic tools, and how to score the readings and analyse the results.

In a nutshell, what does the service involve?

The service is in three parts. The first is a discussion with the patient about what their expectation is from the test. Some people will come in and tell you that they have a food allergy, but then you realise it's actually an intolerance. There is a slight but subtle difference - a food allergy will usually involve an end result of a visible skin reaction or swelling of your windpipe, for example, whereas an intolerance will probably involve some element of diarrhoea or nausea and vomiting. We discuss this and then if the patient decides to proceed we sample the blood from their finger. The incubation of the blood in the test cassette takes up to an hour, so at this point we send the patient off on their merry way.

We have to dilute the blood sample with various solutions, over time periods ranging from five minutes to eight minutes for each cycle. When the results are ready, we do the interpretation. The interpretation is normally in three parts - the test cassette has various windows and gives you a visual result on the various allergens. So you will see either a) there is no intolerance or allergy, b) there is a minor intolerance or allergy, or c) there is a major intolerance or allergy.

Finally, we call the patient back in to discuss the results. We test for around 30 main allergens and each window on the cassette represents these - from eggs whites, to various types of milk, grain, gluten and so on. So, the patient will be able to see their sensitivity to each of these and then they are in a position to make certain lifestyle changes. Some people don’t actually know that they had an allergy at all, so it indicates that for them and they can use that knowledge going forward.

Are there any opportunities to sell over the counter or prescription products during the consultation or after it?

Yes, there are some opportunities - say for example a patient is showing an allergy or intolerance to a particular food group and will be unable to obtain the full nutritional spectrum for their diet because of the allergy, then we can suggest some multi-vitamin supplements. We can also offer a fibre product for people who are intolerant to gluten, and we sell some probiotic products too.

How have patients responded to the service?

The feedback has generally been positive - in the sense that we at least know patients are no longer losing their mind. They have the knowledge and are able to make a change to their dietary habits, rather than just suffering in silence. It helps them to get a handle on certain things and that’s what we’re there for.

Roughly how often each month do you carry out the service?

We probably carry it out once every two or three weeks on average.

How much do you charge for the service?

The fee is £149.

Roughly how much a month do you make from offering the service?

I wouldn’t say it’s lucrative in terms of it being something that you would be able to count on to balance your budget, but it’s part of a wider series of offerings. There are possibilities for link sales, and there’s an opportunity to create a relationship with the patient - they do come back for advice and with their prescriptions.

Would you recommend offering this service to other contractors?

Yes - as community pharmacies we’ve got a foot in both camps, we’ve got a foot in one camp, which is the NHS, but we’ve also got a foot in the other camp, which is to turn a profit. We need to find ways of doing something to ensure the marriage between these two camps works and this is one of the options available.