Patient hesitancy and concerns about privacy could mean a slow uptake of Pharmacy First services, the head of policy, public affairs and research at Healthwatch England has warned.

Speaking to the Health and Social Care Committee (HSCC)’s pharmacy inquiry this week, William Pett suggested that greater public awareness of pharmacy services was needed for patients used to going to their GP first.

‘We must accept that many patients are used to seeing their GP as their first port of call for many health conditions,' Mr Pett told the inquiry.

'Pharmacy First is welcome, but there are going to be some restrictions on how quickly some patients are going to want to take up some of those services.’

He suggested that patients might prefer to see a GP because they ‘don't want to be bounced around services’.

And he highlighted patient concerns around privacy, especially when discussing sensitive issues with a community pharmacist.

In the evidence session on Tuesday, Mr Pett shared initial findings from recent Healthwatch England surveys conducted in November last year that asked patients about the seven conditions treatable within Pharmacy First.

The surveys found that the public were ‘generally positive’ about going to a community pharmacy for conditions like a sore throat or earache, but they also suggested they were ‘far less’ likely to visit a pharmacy for urinary tract infections (UTI) and shingles.

The full findings of the survey will be published in March, Mr Pett said.

He added that when Healthwatch England spoke to patients about why, many were unaware that they could visit a pharmacy for these services.

‘We'd urge public awareness raising when Pharmacy First is launched nationally,’ Mr Pett said.

And he added: ‘We need to build confidence amongst the public, [that] when you go to your pharmacist, you will be able to get seen for that condition without being referred back into the GP.’

Mr Pett also suggested that privacy is ‘a really important concern for some patients, especially on sensitive issues like UTIs’.

‘Patients want to know that they're going to be seen privately in a consultation room, many patients aren't aware that pharmacy offers private consultation rooms or don't have much faith in the privacy that those consultation rooms offer,’ Mr Pett said.

A 2022 report from Healthwatch Harrow quoted a patient saying that they thought their local pharmacy did ‘a great job’, but that there was ‘no privacy in store which may limit what I would feel comfortable discussing’.

And a patient in Essex told Healthwatch last year said that sometimes the consultation room in their local pharmacy was used for medicine storage, meaning that there was ‘no private space to consult the pharmacist’.

Patients also told Healthwatch they did not know what pharmacists were trained or qualified to help with.

According to the Pharmacy First service specification, pharmacies delivering face-to-face consultations ‘must have a consultation room that will be used for the provision of the service which meets the requirements of the terms of service’, including with access to IT equipment to update records.

NHS England have also promised a public-facing campaign to help raise awareness of Pharmacy First in England.