Members of Parliament have encouraged pharmacists to be ‘loud and noisy’ and make the case for the challenges and opportunities facing the sector to their MPs.

In interviews with The Pharmacist, three members of the Pharmacy All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) said pharmacists can help people understand the pressures facing community pharmacy by engaging with their own MP and with the media.

Taiwo Owatemi MP, APPG chair and who also works as a cancer pharmacist, said there is ‘generally a willingness to listen and to develop pharmacy’ but that many politicians do not really understand what community pharmacies can do.

Ms Owatemi said that when engaging with other politicians, she tries to ensure they ‘actually understand pharmacy beyond dispensing’, as well as ‘understand some of the barriers that are preventing pharmacists from being able to achieve that clinical vision that everybody wants’.

There is an appetite for solutions within the government and wider NHS, she added, saying that ‘the NHS wants to start focusing on prevention and pharmacies are the key to prevention.’

However, she continued: ‘Part of the difficulty is that we are a very structured profession where we don’t tend to be disruptive in any manner and I think that because we tend to just follow things as they are it means that people don’t necessarily think there’s a problem.’

While she said that she doesn’t want patients to pay the price for pharmacy pressures, she said that pharmacists could ‘bring the public with us’ by ‘being open and honest about how things are’ and ensure decision-makers are ‘more aware that actually [pharmacists] are in that difficult situation’.

Elliot Colburn, MP for Carshalton and Wallington and APPG member, said that one argument for pharmacy is to outline ‘just how much community pharmacy can help reduce pressure on the rest of the NHS’ and ‘better optimise patient outcomes’.

This is of the most persuasive arguments that the APPG is making to government, ‘and one that they really seem to take on board’, he added.

‘That's really persuasive because the government is, I think, really struggling figure out how to deal with the considerable pressure that there is on the NHS at the moment and the massively increased demand that there is not just from the pandemic, but even overhanging the pandemic and now the backlog caused as a result of it,’ he said.

Mr Colburn, who previously worked in the NHS at a local commissioning level, said that since the pandemic, there had been ‘a bit of a culture shift’ in how community pharmacy is viewed.

‘There seems to be a lot more awareness now of the need to bring pharmacists into the conversation about healthcare delivery in this country and also modelling health provision and services at a local level,’ he said.

He added that that the pandemic also made many MPs aware of the challenges facing community pharmacy. ‘When they heard from their own community pharmacist in their constituencies just how desperate the situation was and how much they were burning out, how much they were at risk of closing because of the financial model and how much they were struggling with access and medicines and staff, I think that really brought it home,’ he said.

However, he acknowledged that ‘we haven't yet though seen that yield any sort of big policy change’, adding that ‘there's quite a lot of focus still on what you might call the headline grabbing stuff about elective surgery, backlogs about doctor numbers and nurse numbers, which of course always attracts a lot of attention’.

He also encouraged pharmacists to engage with their own MPs to make the case for community pharmacy, telling them to ‘hang in there’ amid pressures.

Sir George Howarth MP, one of the vice-chairs of the APPG, said that his own interest in community pharmacy began with his interest in diabetes and what could be done to support people to manage their conditions. ‘You start with a particular problem, and then you discover that it’s a broader problem, you begin to realise that there are other drivers of the problem’ he said.

Sir George, who recently led a parliamentary debate on a national strategy for self-care, said that community pharmacies were ‘best placed’ to ease pressure on GPs and help people manage conditions such as diabetes.

He said that the healthcare system ‘needs a new strategy that better involves community pharmacy’, adding that ‘we need to make people much more aware of what community pharmacy can do in self-care’.

However, he said that any change would need ministerial buy-in and additional funding to create the capacity within the sector, and that ultimately the ‘whole system’ would need to be redesigned. ‘We’ve got to get the right minister to buy into that,’ he said.

He said that when community pharmacy was presented to government ministers as a solution, ‘you can see the light go on’, but that when they get back their department, ‘other things take over’.

He emphasised the need to ‘keep hammering things home’ and ‘sustaining the argument’.

‘It’s not just ministers, it’s all of us’, he said.

He encouraged pharmacy contractors to invite their MPs to visit their pharmacies and talk about the range and scale of what they are doing and what resources they need.

‘One of the things that energises MPs is thinking about how we can improve things for the people we represent,’ he explained.

He added that community pharmacies should seek to be entrepreneurial and showcase what solutions they could offer. ‘I realise that’s a hell of an ask!’ he said, ‘but it’s one where [community pharmacies] are very well placed’.

He also said that the NHS should be looking at models of best practice done locally and sharing them around the system.

He added that community pharmacies must keep ‘making the intelligent case for better resourcing’.

‘There’s a need for people to be loud and noisy’, he said.

This comes after the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee launched a political influencing campaign in November to build wider political support for community pharmacies and ensure that parliamentarians ‘understand the risks to pharmacy services that the current pressures on the sector are causing’