Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland (CPNI) has made an urgent call for funding as community pharmacy faces a skills drain into GP practices across the country.

A report by the professional body, published last week (26 September), found that the sector in Northern Ireland is facing an unprecedented workforce crisis, with an estimated deficit of 320 community pharmacists.

The report, which surveyed 77% (409) of the country’s 532 community pharmacies in May and June this year, also found that almost 400 (397) pharmacists have left the sector in the past two years, with 44% (175) of them moving to work in GP practices.

One anonymous respondent told CPNI that they have ‘no option’ but to hire newly-qualified and inexperienced pharmacists for management posts in their pharmacy.

Another said patient safety was a ‘primary concern’ as a result of the deficit.

They added: ‘The GP [pharmacist] roles have removed an entire level of post three-years qualified pharmacists from community pharmacy, leaving a depleted workforce of predominately young pharmacists who are being asked to take on roles [for which] they are not sufficiently experienced.’

CPNI said the Department of Health’s (DoH) announcement of a further £2.19m to support the rollout of the NI practice-based pharmacist scheme last week (23 September) would ‘exacerbate’ the community pharmacy workforce crisis.

The DoH said that transformation projects like the practice-based pharmacy scheme are essential to the future of healthcare and that it is ‘doing its best’ to allocate the limited funding available.


‘Chronic underfunding’


CPNI chief Gerard Greene said: ‘Issues with chronic underfunding and pharmacists not getting fully reimbursed for the medicines they are dispensing have culminated in the most severe and critical period ever faced by our sector.

‘This has been compounded by an investment from the DoH of over £13 million into the practice-based pharmacist scheme, resulting in the movement of 175 pharmacists from community pharmacy into GP practices.‘

Patient safety could be compromised by these ‘critical’ funding and workforce issues by forcing patients to go to ‘over-burdened’ GP practices and hospitals, he added.

Mr Greene added that although the ‘significant’ investment was ‘good news’, he was concerned that the practice-based pharmacist scheme is going ahead despite CPNI’s calls that it should be deferred ‘until the community pharmacy workforce crisis is resolved. ‘

He said: ‘The Department must urgently make the same investment in community pharmacy to stabilise the sector and to ensure that safe services can continue to be provided for patients.’


‘Limited resources’    


A DoH spokesperson said that pharmacists’ skills are in ‘high demand’ across sectors and the Department ‘is doing its best to allocate limited resources in the best way possible’.

They added: ‘While we remain keen to work with CPNI, we do not believe the answer to their staffing issue, as they seem to suggest, is to halt - or indeed reverse - service improvements in other areas.

‘It is the lack of transformation of the way services are delivered in the past that has created many of the challenges we now face – it makes no sense to seek to address those challenges by further curtailing transformation.’

The DoH added that it was ‘surprised and disappointed’ at the tone of CPNI’s comments.


Transform community pharmacy


CPNI vice-chairman James McCaughan added that community pharmacists are ‘ready and willing’ to take part in the programme of transformation, backed by ‘proper funding’.

He said: ‘If we don’t invest properly in community-based services, then we are not going to achieve the transformation in healthcare that is now essential.

‘Community pharmacy should feature heavily in the transformation of health and social care that we are told is urgently needed in Northern Ireland for our health service to be sustainable.’

In July, The Pharmacist investigated why so many pharmacists are moving away from a career in community sector.