Community pharmacies have had to turn patients away who thought that new pharmacy services announced this week were already available, leaders in the sector have told.

On Tuesday, NHS England announced that a nationally funded Pharmacy First service will be launched in England before the end of 2023, subject to consultation.

National newspaper headlines heralded the news that pharmacists would be able to treat seven common health conditions – sinusitis, sore throat, earache, infected insect bite, impetigo, shingles, and uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women – without the patient needing to visit a GP.

But there have been reports of community pharmacies having to turn away patients who thought that the service was already available.

‘Patients have been watching the news and then toddled along to their pharmacy to get their UTI medicines,’ Graham Stretch, president of the Primary Care Pharmacy Association (PCPA), told The Pharmacist.

He described the Pharmacy First proposals as ‘absolutely commendable’ but said that it was unhelpful and frustrating to raise expectations among patients ‘before structures are available universally for all the patients in England’. This included putting in place the necessary IT systems, access to clinical records, training of pharmacists and appropriate PGDs, he noted.

Mr Stretch was said that while the proposals were ‘eminently reasonable’, he was concerned demand had been generated ‘before the hard work on the details have been completed’.

And Dr Leyla Hannbeck, Chief Executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), told The Pharmacist: ‘It hasn't been exactly the greatest process.’

She was concerned that the public had not been appropriately informed about when services were going to start.

But NHSE told The Pharmacist that the primary care report and accompanying news release had been clear that the service would not be immediately available.

Meanwhile, many within the sector have welcomed the increased coverage of community pharmacy across the country this week.

Thorrun Govind, England chair at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, who appeared on national media this week, told The Pharmacist that 10 years ago, journalists were not interested in speaking about community pharmacy.

‘I think it has really changed now,’ she said. ‘We are in a situation now where we've been asked, we've got a seat at the table. We’ve got a real presence as pharmacy,’ she said.

She said that ‘people do recognise what we do’, and ‘people know they can access the support’, but added: ‘We have got to manage expectations.’

‘One of our unique selling points is our accessibility,’ noted Ms Govind. But she said that it was also a reason why ‘when something gets announced like this’, there was a need to explain to the public ‘this is not happening today’.

‘It’s not that we’re not capable. We’re well capable of doing this, and our teams just need to be supported,’ she added.

She said that she felt for pharmacy teams who were faced with patients responding to news they had seen on social media that additional services would be available from their community pharmacy.

‘We’re waiting for this funding to come, and for more detail as well,’ added Ms Govind.

‘It’s an exciting time, it’s going to be game changing for patients, but at the same time, we’ve got some work to do about managing expectations as well.’

As part of the primary care recovery plan, NHSE said that it would be launching a three-part communications campaign for patients, including information about self-care alongside signposting them to the most appropriate place to get help, which under the new plans could be community pharmacy in some cases.

The National Pharmacy Association (NPA)’s director of corporate affairs, Gareth Jones, told The Pharmacist that ‘it makes sense that there should be a well-resourced publicity campaign’, given that Pharmacy First would ‘represent a significant change to the patient pathway for urgent care’.

‘People will need to know what is – and what still is not – available at their pharmacy in terms of NHS service. They should also be reminded of the high level of professional skills within the pharmacy, to reassure them that they will be supported safely and effectively,’ he said.

But he added: ‘Timing the message will be key – we don’t want people to request the service before all preparations have been made and before staff capacity is in place.

‘The new funding gives pharmacies something substantial to work with, but after years of funding cuts there’s a lot of ground to make up to restore lost capacity.’

When NHSE launched a television campaign directing patients to community pharmacy earlier this year, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) chief executive Janet Morrison called it ‘deeply concerning’, ‘irresponsible, ‘extremely unhelpful’ and ‘irritating’, since it came amid heightened pressures on community pharmacies.

Commenting on the increased media and political coverage around community pharmacy services this week, PSNC said that it had been ‘working hard to make sure that the public understands that whilst community pharmacies are keen to help improve access to healthcare and very capable of doing so, the detail of these plans and how funding will flow into the sector are vital aspects to get right to make these plans a reality’.