Without decisive action, the incoming health secretary risks sleepwalking towards an ever-worsening healthcare crisis, suggests Santosh Sahu, founder & CEO of Charac

Although it has only been two months since his previous tenure as health secretary, Steve Barclay inherits a daunting in-tray.

The challenges facing the NHS have only grown under his predecessor’s watch. NHS waiting times earlier this month reached record levels, reaching 7 million for the first time in its history.[1]

Alongside this, Rishi Sunak’s government inherits the daunting task of plugging a £60 billion hole in the public finances caused by economic instability. The chancellor has already indicated that this money will come from further departmental efficiencies and has not ruled out cuts to the NHS budget.

This perfect storm poses a serious threat to the long-term stability of the UK’s health ecosystem, and the health secretary must take decisive action if it is to continue to deliver on its founding constitution.

During his last tenure in office, the health secretary indicated his desire to develop a ‘Pharmacy First’ model which would ease the pressure on hospitals and free up vital resources. As he returns to office, the health secretary must ensure that this is at the forefront of his plans to reform the NHS.

Backing community pharmacies

However, implementing a Pharmacy First model within the healthcare system relies upon providing community pharmacies with the right tools they need to effectively deliver a full range of services to their local communities.

Many community pharmacies are facing a recruitment crisis, with a recent study revealing that over 90% of pharmacies are experiencing staff shortages.[2] At a time where community pharmacies are witnessing record dispensing levels, these critical cornerstones on the high street will in turn struggle to keep up with growing demands.[3]

In a world where consumers increasingly expect to be able to gain access to good and services online, community pharmacies need to catch up and join the digital revolution. Through helping community pharmacies gain access to time-saving digital platforms, pharmacists will be able free up the time and manpower that might otherwise prevent them from delivering other important services to their local communities. Disruptive start-ups such as Charac play a critical role in shaping the future of the industry. Charac’s app enables pharmacies to manage prescriptions and book consultations from a laptop, tablet or mobile, saving valuable time while broadening the services the pharmacies typically offer.

Raising awareness

Vital to the success of a pharmacy first approach will be raising awareness around the services that community pharmacies can offer. There are over 35 medical conditions that no longer require a prescription from a GP, and under new NHS pilot scheme, pharmacists will be able to refer patients directly to cancer specialists if they spot any ‘red flag’ symptoms.

However, communities are still unaware of the services which community pharmacies provide. In a recent survey, only 5.8% were aware that blood pressure checks could be performed at their local community pharmacy.[4]

To truly realise the potential of community pharmacies, the health secretary needs to ensure that any renewed pharmacy first approach is accompanied by a concentrated effort to raise awareness around the key services pharmacists can offer on both a national and local level.

Tacking health inequality

Empowering community pharmacies to help deliver a pharmacy first approach will also be a key first step in addressing the vital issue of health inequality in the UK. Between 2015 and 2022, over 40% of permanent community pharmacy closures took place in 20% of the most deprived areas of England.[5]

Denied access to community pharmacies, as the increasing impact of the cost-of-living crisis is felt by communities in these areas, means the most vulnerable within our society risk falling through the cracks of our healthcare system.

Without decisive action, the incoming health secretary risks sleepwalking towards an ever-worsening healthcare crisis which threatens the ‘levelling up’ agenda on which his party was elected in 2019. However, through creating an enhanced role for pharmacists, the health secretary can create a more sustainable healthcare ecosystem capable of delivering on the NHS’s founding principles.



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