Community pharmacy closures and pressures on the sector could impact on patient care and access to medicines, speakers at a Westminster Health Forum have warned.

Speaking at the forum event last week, Yousaf Ahmad, chief pharmacist and director of medicines optimisation at Frimley Health and Care Integrated Care System (ICS), called the closure rate of community pharmacies ‘unacceptable’.

And he said the government and the sector needed to have a conversation about how the community pharmacy could be invested in ‘to support medicine supply and ultimately the health of the population’.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who was chairing the session, responded: ‘It is a puzzle to me that at the same time as the government have launched Pharmacy First, which is really encouraging community pharmacy to do much more in the future for NHS patients, they are facing a financial crunch.’

‘I think this is a debate that we need to unfold over the next few months,’ he added.

Meanwhile, Professor Zaheer-Ud-Din Babar, Professor in medicines and healthcare at the University of Huddersfield, cited a 2023 study which found that drug shortages impacted on pharmacists’ workloads with a potential to affect the quality of patient care.

The study also found that 65% of respondents believed drug shortages had an impact on patient care.

‘Drug shortages [are] a growing and complex problem,’ commented Professor Babar.

He warned that measures used to combat shortages tended to be ‘reactive’, with ‘a focus on managing existing shortages and not addressing the causes of shortages’.

And efforts tended to be ‘national’, despite repeated calls for ‘a multi-country approach to identify global or at least European answers’.

Professor Babar also suggested that pricing policies could have an impact on drug shortages.

Also at the forum, Elizabeth Hansen, life sciences partner at Deloitte, highlighted the need to ‘continuously evolve and improve payment outcomes structures’.

While suggesting that patient access to and outcomes from innovation were variable, she said that the UK was ‘very strong’ in relation to gene therapy.

Ms Hansen also pointed to a recent subscription-based model for antimicrobial resistance – based around the value to the NHS rather than volume of product used.

She said the scheme ‘puts the shift towards procuring for value’ and enables procurement teams ‘to focus on the economic and the efficiency of the system.’

Ms Hansen also called for ‘longer term benefits’, including prevention and sustainability, including the environmental impacts of medicines, to be incentivised.

‘About a quarter of health of the global burden of disease is actually due to environmental causes, and that's a third for children. So it's not just about our environment, it’s about the health of our people on our planet,’ she said.

‘We need to move away from a traditional focus on short term innovation and in-year budgeting to actually longer term benefits and prevention. So there's a lot still to do, but the prize is definitely worth it in having a healthier nation.’

The online event discussing priorities for medicine access, supply and pricing in the UK was hosted by Westminster Forum Projects (WFP), a private organisation that facilitates impartial conversations relevant to government policy.

New analysis from the Company Chemists' Association published this week has highlighted 'unprecedented' levels of pharmacy closures, with a net loss of 432 bricks and mortar pharmacies in England over the last financial year.