When managing director Bharti Patel joined Avicenna at the beginning of 2020, she was not to know just how a significant the year would be for the sector. Here she talks about the challenges and opportunities for community pharmacy during 2021 

Upon joining Avicenna and returning to the pharmacy sector, I was acutely aware of the significant challenges faced by community pharmacy during a period of significant transformation brought about by government, funding changes, national and local commissioning schemes, as well as a growing private services consumer market. I was very much looking forward to strengthening Avicenna’s strong heritage and comprehensive support services for independent pharmacy as well as helping to drive the sector’s agenda at industry level.

The challenges brought about by the sudden onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the rapidity of its spread overwhelmed our nation’s healthcare infrastructure. Throughout the pandemic, community pharmacy has stepped up, adapted and demonstrated its critical role within the primary care networks. It has overcome significant operational challenges through strong leadership, agility, resourcefulness, courage, resilience, and application of clinical judgement, and ensured the continuity of medicines management and patient care.

It was a relief when the Government finally publicly acknowledged community pharmacy’s significant role and contribution during the Covid-19 pandemic briefings. However, government now needs to act with a sense of urgency to support contractors through national fair return on funding and increased commitment to local services commissioning. Progress on new policies and funding for the CPCF 5-year deal is frustratingly slow and there continues to remain a lack of cohesion and direction within PCN structures, with limited pockets of best practice collaboration between GP surgeries and pharmacy contractors. Now is the time for us all to think differently and act as one interdependent multidisciplinary team, with a common goal to deliver accessible quality patient care at best value.

As we begin 2021, community pharmacy should harness all that it has learnt through the challenges of 2020, continuing to adapt and strengthen its capabilities to take on an expanded role in the heart of primary care networks and stand out as a beacon of excellent and accessible, national and local services in communities, as we deliver in the new ‘normal’.

This will be another important year in pharmacy, with the new norm offering considerable opportunity for innovation and growth. However, pharmacies have to be prepared to embrace change and GPs need to be receptive to collaboration at local level.

There will also be ongoing challenges, with a number of very real issues for community pharmacy, of which funding and cashflow are key components. Changes in operational workflows, as services are reconfigured, advancements in technological development and new operating models come into being, require significant investment. Making such investment decisions in these and business infrastructure poses a significant dilemma for community pharmacy at a time of uncertainty in its future funding regime.

Automation has the potential to help pharmacies drive efficiency and reduce operating costs, and free up time to enable teams to increase revenue through growing their prescription items and new services. Unless this capital expenditure is proactively supported and enabled through government digital funding schemes, community pharmacy may not be in a position to access necessary investments to grasp the opportunities.

During 2021, Avicenna’s key focus will be to continue lobbying at national and local level for greater recognition and support for the community pharmacy, as well as driving the ongoing development of its programme to address the top challenges identified by its members:

  1. Lack of time
  2. Funding and cash flow
  3. Workforce and skill mix
  4. Capacity
  5. Competition including online channels
  6. Fatigue.

The support provided by Avicenna through its four key service categories, Avibuyer, Aviclinic, Aviacademy and Avidigital, has been developed to directly address the needs of members. Using the analogy that Avicenna is a seatbelt for pharmacy, members are always in the driving seat and our role is to help keep them safe throughout their journey. Avicenna launched the prescription ordering App ‘Manage My Meds’ across its retail estate at the end of 2020 and rolls out to Avicenna Independents commences this month.

Avicenna took the decision not to furlough any of our staff throughout the pandemic to ensure that we continued to support our members throughout the unprecedented challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. With the ‘new norm’, we have continued to support our members to adapt, stabilise and are now working with them to move into reset and recovery mode to help them grow and thrive in 2021 and beyond.