It is not new that pharmacies' role within the healthcare sector has often been downplayed and even underplayed.
However, since Covid ripped through the healthcare system and left hospitals and GPs drowning in a backlog of appointments and cases, now — more than ever — pharmacy bodies and pharmacists alike are calling for the NHS to use pharmacies.
Like much of the pharmacy sector, Jackie Doyle-Price, chair of The All-Party Pharmacy Group (APPG), fears the healthcare system is still failing to make use of community pharmacy.
In an exclusive interview with the Pharmacist, the Conservative MP for Thurrock, Ms Doyle-Price, says that she believes the NHS is not using the pharmacy sector in the way it should; which she believes to be the root cause of funding problems as well as the influx of mental health issues among pharmacy staff.
‘A very large number of parliamentarians feel very strongly that pharmacists are our unsung heroes,’ she says.
Putting herself among this group, Ms Doyle-Price adds: ‘I am very keen to do what I can to champion the sector, recognising that for most people, it is the front door to the NHS. It is part of the NHS family and it should be treated as such.’
‘Pharmacists deserve a fair crack of the whip’
The APPG, which was formed in 1999, is a cross-party group that holds conversations on topical issues significant to pharmacy, patients and the NHS.
As it stands, the way the contracting system within the NHS works favours those who are employed directly by the NHS; which means independent contractors, such as pharmacists, ‘miss out’, she explains.
‘Pharmacists deserve a fair crack of the whip in terms of treatment by the NHS, especially at a local level. After all, pharmacies are an intrinsic part and are at the heart of the primary care system, but at the moment, the system is very much dominated by GPs,’ she says.
She goes on to say that she wants pharmacies to have a more active role in the ‘planning and delivery of primary care’.
‘The potential for the improvement of our health service at a local level is huge if we make full use of pharmacy. In terms of diagnostics, it's a lot easier to walk in and get advice from your pharmacist — especially since Covid — so we should use that properly.’
Reflecting on the last year and a half, she says: ‘Covid has left us with a huge backlog in hospitals which is bound to put pressure on GPs, and pharmacies can help alleviate that, but they deserve to be paid for it.’
Back in May, the Pharmacist reported that community pharmacists were calling on NHS England to provide proper funding for pharmacy consultations, to help reduce the burden on other parts of the NHS and improve patient care.
This came after an audit from the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) revealed that pharmacies across England are providing around 1.1 million consultations every week, without remuneration – and after a BBC report warned that rising patient numbers and a shortage of GPs were threatening to overwhelm the system.
Ms Doyle-Price says she believes that pharmacists are being ‘shortchanged’ because they are a business and therefore ‘are not being treated as part of the NHS family in the way they should be’.
‘If we are going to rely on pharmacists – and we have to – we do need to start rewarding them properly for it.’
With the former chancellor, Sajid Javid, taking up office as health secretary last weekend (26 June), Ms Doyle-Price is eager to see where the pharmacy sector fits in with his plans. Although his main focus will be to lead the Covid-19 response and NHS and social care reform, Ms Doyle-Price says she is looking forward to working with Mr Javid to ‘make sure that we are fully utilising community pharmacy in primary care’.
‘Matt Hancock was the first secretary of state for health in 25 years to address the NPA [National Pharmacy Association] conference. There has been a marked change in tone toward pharmacy, and I hope that will continue with Sajid Javid,’ she says.
Mental health in pharmacy
Elected as chair of the APPG in 2019, taking over from Labour MP Sir Kevin Barron, Ms Doyle-Price has a background in healthcare, having served as parliamentary under-secretary of state for mental health and suicide prevention under the Theresa May government between 2017 and 2019.
While discussing her previous role, she thanks pharmacists for providing the public with mental health support over the pandemic.
‘What has happened over the last year and a half has had a seismic impact on mental health and mental well-being; as a result, there is going to be a huge demand for medical services, and we won’t be able to deliver all that medical treatment.’
With many GP surgeries and mental health support services working remotely and holding online consultations during lockdown, more people experiencing mental health problems turned to pharmacists for help.
Commenting on this, Ms Doyle-Price says: ‘During this time pharmacists have been at the forefront of helping their nation's mental well-being as well as delivering their services, for which I applaud them.’
Community pharmacists saw an increase in patients showing new or exacerbated mental health issues since the lockdown began, the Pharmacist reported.
A recent survey, conducted by the Pharmacist found that more than three-quarters (80%) of pharmacy professionals found the work pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic had impacted their mental health.
As Ms Doyle-Price points out, pharmacy team members were experiencing high stress levels even before the pandemic. ‘The best way of dealing with stress is giving people certainty,’ she explains.
She links this certainty with financial security, which she says the sector will only get if the NHS starts to treat community pharmacy as an integral part of the health system.
A flash inquiry conducted by the APPG last December found that more than nine in 10 pharmacy team members felt that their place of work was under financial pressure.
‘Without certainty about funding, pharmacists cannot make plans for the future of their business, which is bound to leave them stressed and worried,’ she says.
The inquiry also found that 91% of participants felt the Government did not appreciate the role of pharmacy in frontline healthcare.
Despite this, Ms Doyle-Price assures pharmacists that Parliament ‘fully recognises the contribution pharmacists have made during this pandemic’ and are also ‘very grateful to them’.
‘I feel that the health establishment treats pharmacists little more than glorified retailers, but they are medical professionals and they are part of the NHS family, and it is my goal to make sure that is reflected in how they are treated,’ she says.