Rachel Carter speaks to Ali Sparkes about her pharmacy's weight loss service, which has been running since the mid 90s.

Service type: Weight loss.

Name of pharmacy: The Health Dispensary, Neath, Wales.

Name of pharmacist: Ali Sparkes.

Why did you start offering the service?

I’ve been offering this service since the mid-1990s. I had a lot of patients with diabetes at the time, who couldn’t get access to NHS services and so on. So, I just started doing it informally as a weigh-in service to begin with. It then became linked with Lipotrim. I felt that this was a professional service we could offer, so the Lipotrim products became part of what we were doing already.

How much did it cost to set up the service?

It wasn’t a huge investment. With Lipotrim they give you start-up stock, then there were training costs, staff time and allocating space in the pharmacy to deliver the service. You also need a height measure and measuring tapes. A while after starting the service, we purchased professional scales, which cost around £1,000. These do just weight, aor a body composition analysis as well.

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

Initially, we trained up a health services assistant to offer the service full time over three days. They had experience in the pharmacy and had completed the medicine counter and dispensers courses, so it was mainly giving them extra training on site in the products themselves. Lipotrim has a manual, standard operating procedures, inclusion and exclusion criteria - so more than anything it was about getting to know the product, what sort of weight loss was expected, and what to do if people are on any medication.

As the pharmacist you are still on hand to answer any queries, help if the patient is on any medication, and be there for them to refer the patient on to.

In a nutshell, what does the service involve?

We offer a weekly weigh-in service. Normally, we’d book a 30-minute appointment for somebody coming in for the first time, and then 15-minute follow-up sessions after that. People can bring a food diary if they want, and we also carry out a body composition analysis using our professional scales.

We’ve tried to make our set up nice and comfy - I think it’s important to make people feel like you’re doing it properly. We’ve got a mat in front of the scales because we normally require people to be weighed in bare feet, and we have wipes to wipe before and after. We also give people a print-out of their results, and send reminders before each appointment.

Sometimes it’s simply that the patient comes in, we weigh them, discuss the food diary and chat about how they are getting on. In other cases, it can be selling the Lipotrim product - if people find that helpful in terms of regulating their appetite and minimising calorie intake. Lipotrim offers full meal replacement and partial meal replacement (maintenance) programmes.

Our expertise is around body composition, so in the sessions we focus on muscle mass as well as weight. This is really important - in terms of making sure that people are not just losing water and helping to optimise their diet. We also show people things like pumpkin seeds and nori flakes and share some food awareness knowledge. We’ve got nuts and seeds and all sorts of other products that are good for you and not high in calories in the clinic side [of The Health Dispensary]. So, it’s introducing people to different foods, giving them different recipes to try, and just taking a step-by-step approach.

Aside from that, it’s just advice and talking about general movement. Not everyone has to go to the gym; I think walking is still one of the best things you can do, as long as you’re making yourself breathless from time to time.

I think a lot of the success of a weight loss service in pharmacy is the fact that it can be one to one, which is different from going to a group weight loss session. It’s all about support, providing extra information when needed and you can do a little bit of health coaching mixed in with it as well.

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

We sell the weight loss products themselves, so the Lipotrim shakes and bars, and the actual shakers for that. We’ve also sold tray diet plates, but those weren’t as successful. That’s it - so far, our focus has been about natural and complementary healthcare, so we tend to focus on the actual weight loss journey, that education around body composition, and those products.

How have patients responded to the service?

If you’re at a point where there is a buzz around the service, then it can be quite overwhelming, with a lot of people coming back and forth. For example, if someone uses the service and loses a lot of weight, that creates a lot of interest. But I think generally, people appreciate the friendliness, the individual support, the privacy and knowing that we are there for them year after year.

We’re not judgemental - everyone is on a journey, not everyone is going to lose six stone and keep it off forever, but hopefully at some point they find something that works for them, a particular route, or the right timing for them - and if we can help them achieve that then it is very rewarding. We’ve had some really nice clients over the years and some people have made life-changing amounts of weight loss - it’s quite gratifying to see that.

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

At the service’s peak, we saw double figures every day, but now we see a couple of clients every day. It’s not huge numbers at the moment, but we’ve not been marketing it of late because we’ve been focused on other areas.

There has also been such a massive increase in people out there offering weight loss services, as well as social media and people like Joe Wicks. When we started there wasn’t so much of that around, so there was a good playing field for us to get the service well-known at the time. But there is still an interest and we’ve acquired a second branch, with much more footfall than where we are now, so it’s a service I’m looking to revive. I think that will be an opportunity to try again and see how it lands. We’ve obviously got a fair amount of knowledge and expertise that we’ve built up over the years.

How much do you charge for the service?

We charge £7.50 per the weekly weigh-in service. However, if people want to book for five or 10 sessions, for example, then we bring the overall price down - that’s a really good way of getting buy-in to the service. The full Lipotrim programme retails at £50 to £60 per week for the products. If someone is doing that long-term, we might offer them the weigh-in for free.

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

Figures not available.

Would you recommend offering this service to other contractors?

I think it’s probably something most pharmacies can do - because even if it’s just a basic hop on the scales, it gives us the opportunity to contribute to people’s healthy lifestyles, to develop and maintain relationships over the years, and it can be profitable. I think having some products on offer as part of it probably helps, or doing a mix of products and a service. If you’re doing full health coaching it takes longer, so I’d probably charge more for that.

But I think if you’ve got a key member of staff - someone who wants to champion the service - then that’s the winner really. They will enjoy doing it and then it can be happening without you as the pharmacist having to do too much with it. I do think it’s more of a health service assistant role, unless you’re offering the full Lipotrim service. I certainly enjoy doing it, it’s rewarding and it’s something most pharmacists can do, but you’ve got to have some interest in the subject.