The future of community pharmacy has been spotlighted at a parliamentary event that heard from MPs and industry leaders who suggested the sector could be on the edge of ‘something exciting’.

MPs, senior policymakers and those representing the pharmacy sector attended a House of Commons event on Wednesday to mark the launch of new research from the University of Bath and University of Strathclyde, funded by Sigma Pharmaceuticals.

The policy brief, which has been in the making since 2018, highlights the importance of providing pharmacists a ‘greater role’ in patient care to help ease pressure on GP services.

It makes a list of recommendations for the profession, employers, government and NHS England, and aims to ‘provide evidence to support a strategy for the future developments of community pharmacy’.

‘We are on the edge of something exciting’

Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee and Conservative MP for Winchester and Chandlers Ford, Steve Brine, attended the event and welcomed the new research.

‘The more the merrier on this one, as far as I’m concerned,’ said Mr Brine, who is also the former pharmacy minister, during a short speech at the launch.

He recalled being told as pharmacy minister that ‘the number one thing’ on his ‘worry list’ should be around GP access and the role community pharmacy could play in addressing this.

‘It seemed to me rather obvious that there was this amazing primary care workforce, highly trained clinicians, trusted by the public on street corners and high streets up and down the country, who wanted to help and could help,’ he said.

‘And it's been a long journey to try and get the powers at be to be convinced to that, even when you are the minister.’

But Mr Brine now believed the sector was standing ‘on the edge of something exciting, with real new money’.

He noted he was due to speak with Community Pharmacy England ‘in the next few months about how we take that forward with that money’.

His comments come after news of a £645m cash injection into the sector to help fund a new national Pharmacy First scheme and other NHS services. Though, as previously reported, concerns have been raised that this will not be enough to address the pharmacy funding shortfall.

Mr Brine also noted how there were now ‘lots and lots’ of MPs talking about pharmacy during health questions within the House of Commons. While this used to be ‘pretty rare’, he said pharmacy now ‘comes up again and again and again’.

Mr Brine also pointed to the Health and Social Care Committee’s new inquiry into pharmacy and said it was due to ‘start taking evidence on that when we come back after the summer recess’.

The research launched at the event – The future of community pharmacy in England: policy, stakeholder and public perspectives – will be ‘fed into the briefs and the questions’ of the inquiry, noted Mr Brine.

New research provides ‘evidence for the future’

The policy paper was led by Dr Evina Paloumpi, from the Department of Life Sciences at the University of Bath.

As part of the project, Dr Paloumpi and her research team analysed 25 health and community pharmacy related policies and interviewed 25 individuals, including community pharmacists, pharmacy organisation representatives and service commissioners.

Speaking at the launch event, Dr Paloumpi said three ‘clear priorities’ had emerged from the research.

‘First, to cut NHS waiting lists and recover performance. Second, to support the workforce, retraining, retention. And modernising the way the staff work to deliver recovery through use of data and technology,’ she said.

The research, which was extrapolated into a policy paper, found that the ‘hub and spoke’ model should be used to supply medicines and that pharmacists should use the time released by automated dispensing to ‘provide more nationally commissioned services directly to patients’.

‘These should focus on relieving pressure on GP surgeries, such as long-term condition management, urgent care advice and public health (including vaccination),’ the paper said.

To support change, the paper said additional training was needed for community pharmacy staff, as well as a ‘greater use’ of the skills of pharmacy technicians.

It also suggested systems were needed to ‘enable closer working with general practice’ and in particular, the ‘ability for community pharmacists to read and add information to patients’ health records’.

In addition, it said new services should be ‘piloted and then commissioned nationally to ensure consistent and equitable provision’ and that there was a need for ‘increased remuneration based on service quality’.

Professional leadership and representation for community pharmacy must also be ‘stronger, more unified, and more proactive than present’, added the policy paper.

Dr Paloumpi said the ‘aim of this research was to provide evidence to support a strategy for the future developments of community pharmacy, to ensure this sector continues to meet the needs of the public in the NHS’.

Also speaking at the event was Dr Bharat Shah of Sigma Pharmaceuticals, which provided funding for the project.

Dr Shah explained that when he first met the research team, the idea for a thesis on the future of community pharmacy seemed ‘so distant and very visionary at that time’.

‘But now, in 2023, the community pharmacy arena has changed so much – influenced a lot by the pandemic,’ he said.

‘I feel we are on the cusp of something new – a breakthrough perhaps – that could revolutionise the way we look at community pharmacy.’

A spotlight on community pharmacy

The research launch event heard from several other MPs who shone a light on the ‘important role’ of community pharmacy.

Lord Dolar Popat, a Conservative peer in the House of Lords, said community pharmacies were ‘essential pillars of health provision’ for communities and were ‘often the first point of contact for individuals seeking medical advice, prescription medication and a range of healthcare services’.

Meanwhile, Conservative MP for Watford Dean Russell, highlighted the ‘passion’ pharmacists had during the Covid-19 pandemic to ‘make sure that people were kept safe’ and that individuals were supported and got the advice they needed.

Karin Smyth Labour MP for Bristol South and shadow minister for health and social care, also echoed how pharmacists ‘stepped up to the plate very quickly’ during the pandemic.

However, she warned the reality now was that ‘we are seeing closures across the country’.

‘That's something that I'm seeing in my own constituency as well, and I think that is totally counter to the direction of travel we want to see with [integrated care boards] commissioning more local, place-based care and trying to get [people] out of hospital,’ she said at the launch event.

‘And I do hope the government can find a way to stop that process in order to support the sector, through various partnerships and working with the ICBs, to enable us not to be losing now pharmacies that are often in areas of high deprivation.’

Other researchers on this policy paper included: Dr Matthew Jones, Department of Life Sciences, University of Bath; Dr Piotr Ozieranski, Department of Social and Policy Sciences University of Bath and Professor Margaret Watson, Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences, University of Strathclyde.