By Nick Thayer, professional healthcare and policy researcher at the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA)

For years, the community pharmacy sector has been mindful of digital innovation disrupting the network, and the recent registration of Amazon’s UK trademark will raise alarm bells for some. However, I think that using new technologies to provide the best quality care to patients and customers should be in every pharmacy’s business plan. Indeed, the current Community Pharmacy Contractual Framework (CPCF) specifically references transformation through new technology.

The threat of Amazon (or any other technology driven company) is that they can provide dispensing services to large swathes of the population, disrupting the status-quo. History has shown Amazon entering markets and providing convenience through a combination of automation and logistics. With large volumes of prescriptions dispensed by a few new actors, the viability of the pharmacy on the high street is at real risk. If pharmacy as a sector does not embrace change, then more closures could be a real possibility. Whether you view pharmacies as a commissioner or a patient, experience and cost will drive behaviour. Whilst the relationships pharmacy teams have with their communities are strong, they are unlikely to offer protection for a sector that does not embrace innovation.

Embracing the learnings of other sectors and incorporating new technologies will allow all pharmacies to provide something valued by patients. Legal changes in 2021 will create a level playing field where businesses large and small can take advantage of new innovations – such as remote assembly. To ‘protect’ your business, there is a constant need to find the ‘new’ and differentiate on experience.

CCA member companies are no strangers to innovation. Online pharmacies and apps are becoming ever more embedded into the menu of choices for patients. Increasingly, patients can choose to access their medication through the route that best suits them, whether that be online, in person or through a changing mixture. Just a few years ago, collection of prescriptions from a closed pharmacy would have been unthinkable, yet an increasing number of businesses are trialling secure locker collections. Combined with text messages and in-app communications, the link between pharmacist and patient is becoming stronger than ever.

These advancements are not restricted to dispensing. For years, online doctor services have been available - providing seamless care through a combination of online and in-person consultations. The Covid pandemic has enabled pharmacies to engage with remote care, from phone calls organising deliveries for shielding patients to video-consultations for emergency hormonal contraception. In Scotland, the NHS Near Me programme shows a potential future for embedding these new technologies in everyday practice.

From apothecaries working with natural remedies, to chemist and druggists compounding early chemical cures, and through to modern day community pharmacies, our profession has always looked to adopt the latest technology. Automation, whether robotics or Hub and Spoke, is a key

example of new technology changing common practice. These developments release the time and capacity in the pharmacy to provide the care that pharmacists and their teams are so good at providing.

This year has already seen community pharmacy provide over 2.1 million flu vaccines, an incredible achievement. The introduction of the fledgling GP Community Pharmacist Consultation Service has the potential to allow for a similar impact to the care in our communities. This increasingly service led model points towards a future that is broader than just dispensing. The remainder of the CPCF is yet to be fully articulated, but it is clear there will be an ever-greater provision of services. We know that the natural location of community pharmacists increases the healthcare available in deprived areas. This is a key feature of community pharmacy that we can and must use to help reduce the health inequalities in our country. The Covid pandemic has highlighted these inequalities like never before, and we must work with our colleagues across other professions to directly tackle them.

The mix between the physical and the digital is what is needed to allow community pharmacy to flourish and provide the high-quality care everyone expects. However, even with the huge scale of changes in just a few years, often patient and professional experiences do not match that of other parts of society. People expect to be able to track their deliveries from the point of ordering, to the warehouse, to their door. People expect real time information and a seamless transition between settings.

We need the NHS to support community pharmacy in this transformation journey. This means upgrading the EPS infrastructure to meet the needs of a modern community pharmacy network. Changes to regulations to support Hub and Spoke technologies will again release the needed capacity to provide the direct care desired. All of this needs to be underpinned by a fair funding package, recognising the essential role pharmacies play within every community in the UK.

Community pharmacists have traditionally been on the cutting edge of healthcare technology. We need to embrace our legacy and provide a service that our communities need and deserve.