Community pharmacies saw fewer patients being informally referred by GPs this year compared with last, new figures suggest, while the number of consultations in pharmacy continue to rise overall.

The number of informal referrals from GPs reduced by 15% from nearly 101,000 in 2021 to 85,000 in 2022, suggesting more patients have come to pharmacies for advice and perhaps that GPs may be using formal the Community Pharmacy Consultation Service (CPCS).

Figures from the latest Pharmacy Advice Audit carried out by the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), found that pharmacies on average saw a 32% increase in clinical advice consultations given to patients per week between 2020 and 2022.

The number of patients referred informally to pharmacies via NHS 111 has increased since 2021 from 27,500 to 31,000 in 2022.

In the report, PSNC said that informal referrals create a 'clinical risk' because' if patients are not formally referred via NHS CPCS, there is a risk that they will not receive assessment and advice if they do not present to a pharmacy'.

'This demonstrates the need to ensure all GP practice and NHS 111 referrals are formally referred to a community pharmacy,' it added.

PSNC estimated that 65 million informal consultations, for which pharmacies receive no remuneration, will take place in pharmacies this year, up from 58 million in 2021 and 52 million in 2020.

This means that free pharmacy advice currently saves 619,000 GP appointments every week and 32.2 million appointments over the course of the year.

Janet Morrison, the PSNC chief executive, said: ‘The nation now relies heavily on our community pharmacies who see millions of people needing healthcare advice every year.

‘Pharmacies have proved themselves time and again to be the most accessible healthcare locations, and without them the NHS simply could not cope.’

She added: ‘As many people have struggled to see their GP, they are increasingly turning to their local pharmacies instead.

‘Unfortunately, pharmacy teams themselves are also facing growing pressures, and the Government must start funding them fairly if they want to protect these local healthcare centres that so many people now rely on.’

The audit, which began in 2020 and took place in over 4,000 pharmacies between January to June 2022, aimed to collect data on how many informal patient consultations were happening in community pharmacy each day.

As in previous years, the consultation found that pharmacies are still providing patients with free healthcare advice which should have been provided through the Community Pharmacist Consultation Service (CPCS), PSNC said.

In December, NHS England and NHS Improvement flagged that some GP practices were bypassing the formal CPCS referral route for minor illnesses by 'informally directing' patients to community pharmacies.

NHSE&I told GP practices that referring patients into community pharmacy informally 'may result in some patients not accessing the care they need” and can hinder pharmacy teams “from identifying patients that need to directly speak to the pharmacist at this very busy time'.