Practice pharmacists in Northern Ireland will be ‘more firmly established’ as the ‘clinical leads for medicines’ within general practice teams by 2030, a new government strategy has pledged.

The Department of Health in Northern Ireland has published a strategy for the ‘future development’ of the general practice pharmacy sector after an evaluation of the service showed positive outcomes.

A general practice pharmacist service (GPP), which introduced new roles for pharmacists to work alongside GPs, was fully implemented in Northern Ireland in 2020, and today every GP practice in the country has a pharmacist in post.

According to an evaluation of the GPP service, the government said it had helped optimise patient outcomes from medicines, improved the efficient use of health service funding for medicines, reduced unnecessary antibiotic prescribing and helped with GP practice workload.

There are currently 287 full-time equivalent practice pharmacists in the country.

The evaluation suggested those in post have carried out 894,652 medication reviews since the service was rolled out, and that they had saved 4,212 hours of practice time per week.

In addition, the GPP service had supported a 34% reduction in antibiotic prescribing and had saved £39.5m on medicines.

The new GPP Northern Ireland 2030 strategy, published in February, describes how those in post can ‘contribute fully to optimising the health outcomes of [the] population as the clinical leads for medicines in the general practice team’.

It spells out six key recommendations for the service over the next six years, including a focus on defining the ‘core’ role and developing a ‘career pathway’.

In addition, the strategy also suggests the implementation of a ‘pathfinder study’ to inform the ‘phased introduction’ of a pharmacy technician role in GP practices.

Recommendations in full:

  • Define the core general practice pharmacist role and develop arrangements that support the consistent delivery of high-quality services in all practices.
  • Develop a career pathway for general practice pharmacists with an initial focus on new clinically advanced general practice pharmacist roles that improve patient outcomes and contribute to health system improvements.
  • Develop a culture of pharmacist professional development that allows protected time and access to high quality education and training from undergraduate to consultant level practice
  • Implement a pathfinder study that will inform the phased introduction of the pharmacy technician role in general practice
  • Develop innovative approaches to data interrogation that will enable targeted pharmacy support to optimise individual and population health outcomes
  • Develop clinical outcome measures that demonstrate the impact of general practice pharmacy services on individual and population health outcomes

Overarchingly, the strategy pledged for general practice pharmacists to be ‘more firmly established as the clinical leads for medicines in the general practice team, leading the delivery of high quality, safe, effective, cost-effective and sustainable prescribing and use of medicines’ by 2030.

It added: ‘This vision is also about realising the full potential of a diversified general practice pharmacy workforce working in professionally fulfilling roles within robust career development pathways.

‘This means establishing pharmacy teams consisting of pharmacists at different stages of their career pathway, including entry level and advanced practice, and pharmacy technicians.’

Chief pharmaceutical officer for Northern Ireland, Professor Cathy Harrison said: ‘Across Northern Ireland general practice pharmacists are a vital part of how primary care services are delivered.

‘Enhancing their capabilities and building capacity in the pharmacy workforce through delivery of this strategy will help to drive reform and innovation in frontline care.’

She added: ‘I have every confidence that general practice pharmacy will continue to improve outcomes for patients and help services to adapt to best meet the health needs of our population.’

Health minister, Robin Swann added: ‘The introduction of pharmacists into general practice teams has seen proven improvements in the safety, efficiency, effectiveness, and consistency of prescribing within GP practices and has helped to alleviate some of the pressures faced in primary care.

‘The potential for GPPs to further contribute to the transformation of health and social care in Northern Ireland is clear.

‘The recommendations in this strategy are ambitious, but we are committed to working with our partners and the general practice pharmacist workforce to progress implementation in the coming months and years.’