Community pharmacists will be able access and add to patient records currently maintained by GPs from January next year, in a bid to free up millions of GP appointments.

The Government, NHS England and Community Pharmacy England said they agreed that the Pharmacy First scheme will launch on 31 January 2024, subject to the ‘appropriate digital systems being in place’ to support the services.

This will include investment to ‘significantly connect and improve’ the digital infrastructure between general practice and community pharmacy to ‘streamline referrals’, ‘increase access’ to more parts of the GP patient record and improve how GP records are updated following the provision of pharmacy services.

It will also include the development of a clinical triage system to send electronic referrals from NHS 111 and urgent and emergency care settings to community pharmacy that may otherwise go to a GP practice, for the seven common conditions targeted: sinusitis; sore throat; earache; infected insect bite; impetigo; shingles; and uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women.

The organisations said that they are working with all pharmacy IT system suppliers currently assured for the Community Pharmacist Consultation Service (CPCS), blood pressure check service and Pharmacy Contraception Service (PCS) to update their clinical systems to support the launch of the scheme.

According to a letter sent to pharmacy contractors today, from the launch of the scheme community pharmacies will:

  • have access to more parts of the GP record (medications, observations and investigations)
  • use the new Pharmacy First consultation record to capture the consultation which will then send automatic structured updates to the GP record and to the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) to support payments and reporting on the service

The letter added: ‘We are working with NHS Pathways to develop the clinical triage system to send electronic referrals from NHS 111 and urgent and emergency care settings to community pharmacy that may otherwise go to a GP practice for the seven common conditions highlighted above, and with existing IT suppliers to streamline referrals from GPs moving away from NHSmail.

‘These will create additional step changes to further integrate community pharmacy and paves the way in the future for commissioning a wider range of clinical services at neighbourhood, place, integrated care board and national level.’

Community Pharmacy England Director of NHS services Alastair Buxton said that one of the elements that is been developed as part of the launch is to give pharmacists access to a system called GP Connect.

In a press briefing ahead of today's announcement, he said that the updates were being developed by the GP Connect team within the transformation directorate at NHS England.

He explained that while pharmacists were used to viewing the National Care Records Service (NCRS) in a separate window, GP Connect would use an API (application programming interface) to pull the patient's data directly into the IT system used by the pharmacy, enabling pharmacists to see relevant parts of the GP record without having to open new windows.

‘So that’s one of the IT developments that’s been worked on for the new year,' he said.

The ability of community pharmacies to access and add to GP patient records was initially announced as part of NHS England and the Government’s primary care recovery plan in May, which had targeted for the combined measures to free up 10 million GP appointments a year by next winter.

But at the time, while GPs acknowledged that a level of access to records will be required, they highlighted the importance of maintaining patient confidentiality.

RCGP chair Professor Kamila Hawthorne said: ‘Our pharmacist colleagues do an excellent job for their communities and are providing invaluable support to many GP practice teams against a backdrop of huge workload and workforce pressures.

‘It is right that they are given the support they need to help patients most effectively.

‘However, pharmacists and GPs are distinct health professionals, and neither should be seen as a substitute for the other.

‘While we are keen to see initiatives that will ease the pressure on our struggling family doctor service, patients will in many cases, need the expert diagnostic skills and expertise of a GP.’

Healthwatch England head of policy, public affairs and research William Pett said: ‘Being able to see your GP in a timely manner remains the public’s top concern.

‘If this initiative is effectively communicated and delivered, it will make a real difference to patients and relieve the pressure on hard-pressed services.

‘There could be potential problems, such as pharmacists not being able to see enough of people’s GP records or the ability of different communities and areas to access the new service.

‘However, if evaluated well, the NHS will be able to ensure that this promising new service really works for patients.’

A version of this article first appeared on our sister title, Pulse.