Pharmacists involved in an ‘innovative’ scheme to relieve winter pressures have seen more than 1,200 patients with illnesses who might otherwise have gone to hospitals and acute centres so far.

They are involved in a six-month trial programme to divers appropriate non-urgent NHS 111 callers to community pharmacies.

Pharmacists have seen 1,249 patients since the Digital minor illness referral - community pharmacy referral scheme  (CPRS) started in December.

The scheme is paid for by NHS England’s £2.6m Pharmacy Integration Fund and involves 300 pharmacies in Durham, Darlington, Tees, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear.

What does the scheme involve?

Patients get referred to local pharmacies during late night, weekend and out of hours periods. Pharmacies are sent electronic notification of a referral and follow up patients who have not attended within 12 hours.

Participating pharmacists assess patients in a private consultation room and offer advice on managing conditions and make a direct GP appointment or referral to another provider if necessary.

By the end of December, 39% of patients who visited participating pharmacies were given advice and supplied with a OTC medicine.

Pharmacists escalated 11% to out of hours appointment and walk-in centres and referred 18% of visitors to in hours GP appointments.

They gave advice only to 22% of patients who attended a consultation.

The scheme aims to focus on giving patients more accessible care closer to home.

Seasonal illnesses

Currently, less than 1% of NHS 111 callers in England are referred to a community pharmacy, despite the pressure of non-urgent appointments affecting access to GPs.

NHS England said ‘a significant proportion of calls’ during the trial have been for seasonal coughs and cold symptoms.

Its deputy medical director for Cumbria and the North East Dr Jonathan Slade said: ‘The future direction and success for the NHS is dependent on much closer working between different providers of health and social care, and this includes tapping into underused resources like community pharmacy.’

He added: ‘The pressures that the NHS is under generally, and particularly in winter, need to be addressed in innovative ways, and the CPRS is an excellent example of how this closer collaboration can continue to deliver great care conveniently, and help relieve some of the pressures in key areas such as urgent and emergency care.’