Pharmacy leaders from across the sector have reiterated calls for a national self-care strategy to help ease pressure on the NHS, with an enhanced role for community pharmacists, in a letter to The Times this weekend.

Community pharmacists should be able to access and populate shared medical records and make referrals to other healthcare professionals, the letter said.

It also called for a school curriculum to teach children about self-care, as well as digital technologies and trusted health education to facilitate and encourage people to care for themselves when appropriate.

The self-care strategy blueprint was developed in 2021 by PAGB, in partnership with healthcare and pharmacy organisations.

At the time, PAGB suggested that the pandemic had had ‘a positive impact on the public’s attitudes to self-care’, but expressed concerns that as restrictions eased, people would return to visiting a GP or A&E at pre-pandemic levels.

The strategy calls for the government to set out an ‘ambitious vision for self-care’, so that in 10 years’ time:

  • The public understand and are willing to practise self-care
  • Healthcare professionals promote self-care and wellbeing
  • The healthcare system supports self-care, including better integrating pharmacy into the primary care pathway
  • Digital technology is used to its full potential to encourage and support self-care.

And as pressure on the NHS increases this winter, sector leaders have again urged the government to consider the value of self-care.

Latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show that deaths in England and Wales are 20% higher than average for this time of year, with the highest levels of hospital admissions seen in at least a decade.

‘Self-care does not mean no care. When practised appropriately and effectively it enables people to access the most suitable care for their symptoms,’ this weekend’s letter to The Times read.

The letter said that an estimated £1.5 billion was spent on inappropriate use of NHS services for self-treatable conditions before the covid-19 pandemic.

But according to a 2022 survey, 73 per cent of people said it should be easier to care for yourself without GP or A&E services.

The letter said that this indicated ‘a shift in attitudes’ and demonstrated that self-care presented an opportunity for the long-term sustainability of the NHS.

The letter was signed by leaders from across the sector including:

  • Helen Donovan, chair of the Self Care Forum;
  • Thorrun Govind, England chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS);
  • Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp);
  • Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA);
  • Dr Graham Jackson, chair of the Self-Care Strategy Group;
  • Mark Lyonette, chief executive of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA);
  • Sophie Randall, director of the Patient Information Forum;
  • Michelle Riddalls, chief executive of the Proprietary Association of Great Britain (PAGB), which represents the interests of over-the-counter medicines manufacturers;
  • Professor Ash Soni, president, National Association for Primary Care (NAPC);
  • Dr Caroline Taylor, chair, NAPC.

Under a new NHS England pilot, from 1 February some community pharmacies will begin referring patients directly to hospital for cancer screening.

Health minister Lord Markham said that the pilot would allow pharmacies to play a ‘crucial role’ in helping patients and easing pressures on GPs.

But Malcom Harris, chief executive of the CCA, expressed concerns that ‘this cancer detection pilot, and all other pharmacy services’ would be at risk ‘if the NHS is not prepared to inject urgently needed funding into the sector’.

Yesterday, Janet Morrison, CEO of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, told The Pharmacist that ‘with greater integration, capacity and sustainable funding community pharmacy can be part of the solution for big NHS challenges like GP access,’ following the NHS recovery forum at the weekend.

But she said that the government ‘does need to decide, and quickly, whether it wants to invest in community pharmacies who we know can do more to help patients and support wider healthcare pressures, or to face the disastrous consequences of continuing to degrade the sector and the critical services that it offers to millions of people every day.’

‘We hope the Prime Minister was convinced of the huge mistake it would be not to invest in community pharmacies at this critical time for the NHS and the public it serves,’ she added.