A nationally funded Pharmacy First service will be launched in England before the end of 2023, subject to consultation, NHS England has announced today.

The service, backed by a £645m investment in community pharmacy, will allow pharmacists to supply prescription-only medicines including antibiotics and antivirals where clinically appropriate, to treat seven common health conditions without the need for patients to visit a GP.

These medicines will be supplied under a Patient Group Direction (PGD) and include: sinusitis, sore throat, earache, infected insect bite, impetigo, shingles, and uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women.

NHSE also said that it would support research ‘to ensure a consistent approach to antibiotic and antiviral use between general practice and community pharmacy’, funded through the National Institute for Health and Care Research.

It also said that the service would implement learnings from areas that have implemented similar models and would be subject to a DHSC-led consultation with the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC).

The news came within the new NHSE primary care recovery plan, published today, which also announced a £645m investment in community pharmacy services.

As well as Pharmacy First, the funding, spread over two years, will also support the NHS Pharmacy Contraception and NHS Hypertension Case-Finding services.

And increased delivery of clinical services would be supported by investment ‘to significantly improve’ digital infrastructure between general practice and community pharmacy – including giving community pharmacy additional access to relevant clinical information from GP records, the ability to update the GP record and access to streamlined referral processes.

While the pharmacy sector welcomed the additional investment and the opportunity to provide more patient services, many questioned whether it would be enough to fill the gaps in community pharmacy funding that has grown over recent years.

And PSNC said that the ‘the devil will be in the detail’ and further discussions are still to take place.

Expanded role for pharmacies

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised to 'end the 8am rush' for patients trying to get a GP appointment and 'expand the services offered by pharmacies, meaning patients can get their medication quickly and easily'.

While health and social care secretary Steve Barclay said that the plan would free up GPs' time 'by transferring some treatment services to our incredibly capable community pharmacies'.

Janet Morrison, PSNC chief executive, said that the plans were 'a very welcome step towards putting pharmacies even more at the heart of primary care and prevention – where they belong – and making better use of pharmacists’ clinical skills'.

And new National Pharmacy Association (NPA) chair, Nick Kaye, who was part of a local Pharmacy First service in Cornwall, welcomed the commitment to rolling out the service across England in 2023.

He said: 'People across England will soon have more convenient access to advice and treatment for common conditions, thanks to the expert support available in their local community pharmacies.

'As trusted and accessible health care professionals, pharmacists and their teams are ideally suited to handle common conditions like coughs, colds and urinary tract infections.

'Everyone will benefit from this development – GP practices, pharmacy teams, the NHS as a whole and, above all, the general public whose day-to-day experience of healthcare will be significantly enhanced by this new service.'

Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp) said that 'the plan recognises the important role that community pharmacies can play in improving patient access to care' in the communities where they are known and trusted - but highlighted the funding shortfall still facing the sector.

While Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists' Association (CCA) welcomed the opportunity to expand existing services, describing the investment as 'a crucial first step' and urging the NHS to 'be ambitious' and 'take full advantage of the opportunity'.

'Game-changer' for patients

Thorrun Govind, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) in England said that the plans were 'a real game-changer for patients as they will provide better access to healthcare, helping to reduce the strain on other parts of the NHS and provide patients with the care they need, when they need it'.

'These plans will help to reduce health inequalities, especially in deprived areas where pharmacies are at the heart of their communities and trusted by patients,' she said.

'Providing treatment to help prevent common conditions from becoming worse and requiring more complex treatment later on is better for patients and also cost-effective. Patients can expect to receive trusted advice from pharmacists in their local pharmacy', she added.

Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, welcomed the expansion of services within pharmacy.

'The local pharmacy is already a source of great information for many patients. Enabling pharmacists to prescribe more and initiate treatments, expands choice for patients,' she commented.

And professor Aruna Garcea, chair of NHS Confederation’s primary care network advisory group said that it was 'welcome to see a recognition of the role that community pharmacy can play to deliver care for those patients that do not need to be seen in general practice'.