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Boosting funding to community pharmacies would help ease the NHS backlog

Many pharmacies are experiencing staff shortages

3 min read

A funding squeeze and workforce shortages are threatening to hold back community pharmacies from expanding.

Community pharmacies make a huge contribution to frontline care which was so clearly demonstrated during the pandemic. Over 24m Covid-19 vaccinations have been delivered to date by pharmacists who stayed open during multiple lockdowns to deliver medicines, care and advice to patients and members of the public.

The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) estimate that around 1.6 million people visit community pharmacy every day in England alone.  89.2% of the population is estimated to have access to a community pharmacy within a 20-minute walk, and crucially in areas of highest deprivation access is significantly higher (99.8%). According to NICE ‘underserved’ communities may be more likely to visit their local pharmacy.

Community pharmacy could do even more in the future, but a funding squeeze and workforces shortages threaten to hold back any expansion.

In a debate on community pharmacy on Tuesday 28 June in the Lords, I will highlight the potential of pharmacy as ‘the first port of call’ to the primary care system. By making much greater use of pharmacists’ skills and improving medicines use, pressure on other parts of the health and care system could be reduced. It could also take the strain off hard-pressed GPs.

Despite their importance, the last time that funding available to pharmacies was increased was in 2014. Moreover, in 2016 it was cut by around £200m a year. The current five-year Community Pharmacy Contractual Framework was agreed in 2019 and has not been adjusted despite the pandemic and rising inflation. Analysis by the Company Chemists Association shows that between 2014 and 2019, in the 5-year period prior to the pandemic, healthcare expenditure in England rose by 9.5% per capita. Contrast that with spend per capita in the community pharmacy sector which decreased by nearly 10.7%. The sector has been delivering for the public and the NHS, despite 8 years of real-term funding cuts, hampering businesses’ ability to invest in their workforce, infrastructure and innovation.

These cuts are exacerbating the difficulties of recruiting pharmacists. The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee’s (PSNC) Pharmacy Pressures Survey found that 91% of pharmacies are experiencing staff shortages. Nine in ten pharmacy teams reported a significant increase in phone calls from patients about prescriptions, and 86% had reported a rise in requests for healthcare advice.

The Company Chemists’ Association analysed data from the General Pharmaceutical Council and Health Education England and found that over the last five years, a shortfall of over 3,000 community pharmacists has developed in England. Whilst the number of pharmacists on the register has increased, demand for pharmacists is far outstripping supply.

Amongst the drivers for this are changing working patterns due an increase in part-time working, reduced working hours and portfolio working. Health Education England’s Community Pharmacy Workforce Survey 2021 found that vacancy rates for pharmacists have more than doubled since 2017. It also found high vacancy rates among pharmacy support staff - which will no doubt impact upon the workload of other members of the team, including pharmacists.

The Government has said it wants to see community pharmacy do more. The importance of a resilient community pharmacy network has never been more apparent, but the current challenges are simply unsustainable and risk impacting upon patient care at the very time that all parts of the system need to be working at full throttle to alleviate the backlog. I hope that this debate encourages the Government to act so that the sector can continue to build on its impressive achievements.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath is a Labour peer.

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