Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey has described the number of patients accessing medicines online or through pharmacies instead of through a GP as a ‘devastating situation’.

But pharmacy bodies have argued in response that pharmacists can provide expert advice and over-the-counter treatments and do much to help relieve pressure on the NHS.

A poll, commissioned by the Liberal Democrats and published today, found that over a quarter (29%) of people have tried and failed to get a face-face GP appointment in their local area over the past twelve months.

Of those, 24% purchased medication online or at a pharmacy without GP advice.

One in six (16%) also said that they had carried out medical treatment on themselves or asked somebody else who is not a medical professional to do so – which the Liberal Democrats termed a ‘DIY doctor’ approach in a statement published today.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey described the situation as a ‘national scandal’, saying: ‘Face-to-face GP appointments have become almost extinct in some areas of the country. We now have the devastating situation where people are left treating themselves or even self-prescribing medication because they can’t see their local GP.’

The Liberal Democrats called for a more doctors to be recruited and for patients to be given a legal right to see a GP within seven days.

Janet Morrison, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee told The Pharmacist that it was ‘very concerning to hear that people are unable to get a GP appointment when they need one’, adding: ‘This is precisely why we need to be making better use of other skilled healthcare professionals such as community pharmacists.’

She said: ‘We have been talking to Government and NHS officials about the many benefits of a fully-funded Pharmacy First service over the past year, and this survey just goes to show how valuable it would be.’

A locally commissioned walk-in consultation service in Cornwall was found to save 4,000 GP appointments and 70 visits to A&E over a period of 10 months last year.

Ms Morrison cited NHS IPSOS research which showed that 91% of patients who had turned to a pharmacy for support said that they had received good advice.

‘The only sticking point seems to be the need for additional funding to support its implementation. But, given the current very fragile state of the community pharmacy network, the money needs to be put in place urgently,’ she added.

PAGB, which represents the manufacturers of branded OTC medicines, self-care medical devices and food supplements in the UK, told The Pharmacist that it is important to make a distinction between people purchasing medicines online without expert advice and purchasing medicines under the supervision of a healthcare professional.

It said that pharmacists are the experts in the community who can help support people to self-care with accurate information and advice, and that if people were empowered to self-care the burden on the NHS could be greatly reduced.

Deborah Evans, community pharmacist and an advisor to PAGB, said: ‘We need to get people back into their community pharmacies and talking to their pharmacist. Pharmacists train to qualify for five years and can help provide expert advice on all self-treatable conditions including minor cuts and burns to aches and pains.

‘Pharmacists are easily accessible experts who can ensure people get swift treatment which means that precious NHS resources can be focused on more serious conditions. The potential savings are enormous. In 2020, it was estimated that the average GP consultation cost the NHS £39.32 and the most basic A&E consultation was at least £77.

‘Pharmacists are well placed to drive a holistic approach to self-care. They can help to advise people on the most suitable and effective over-the-counter treatments as well as self-care techniques.’

Chair of the National Pharmacy Association, Andrew Lane, commented that pharmacies already play a big role in taking pressure off GPs and hospitals, by providing convenient access to healthcare services in the community.

He said that a fully funded Pharmacy First service ‘that embeds pharmacies as the front door to the NHS in England’ would help more people get face to face care in a timely fashion.

‘If, on the other hand, pharmacy underfunding continues to degrade our sector, the opportunity for community pharmacies to release capacity elsewhere in primary care will be lost,’ he added, saying that an NPA poll in August 2022 showed that pharmacy closures drive up the numbers of people going to their GP for minor illnesses and increase pressure across the system.