Pharmacists could treat patients with minor illnesses for half the price the NHS is paying GPs to do the same work, a report by MPs reveals.
The cross-party group is calling on the Government to ‘harness the power’ of pharmacies to tackle Covid backlogs and surging demand.
This could free millions of GP appointments for those with more serious diseases and release money for other frontline services, it adds.
However, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Pharmacy warns ministers must take ‘urgent action’ to relieve funding pressure on local chemists at risk of closure. The MPs and peers have published their Future of Pharmacy report following a major inquiry launched over a year ago.
Pharmacists could treat patients with minor illnesses for half the price the NHS is paying GPs to do the same work
It cites evidence from the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee showing the cost of providing 40million minor ailment GP appointments per year is £1.2billion.
However, it would cost only £560million to transfer these to pharmacies as part of a Community Pharmacy Consultation Service, saving £640million a year which could be reinvested elsewhere. This amounts to a 53 per cent cost saving for the Health Service.
The report came as figures show more than 5million people waited over two weeks for a GP appointment in November and fewer than seven in ten consultations that month were face to face. There are 11,200 community pharmacies across England and 89 per cent of the public is less than a 20-minute walk from their nearest store.
However, thousands are at risk of closing due to the impact of high inflation and reduced funding, the report warns.
Some 670 pharmacies have closed since 2015 and the value of the pharmacy contract with NHS England has shrunk by a quarter in real terms since 2015. The Daily Mail’s Good Health supplement has been running a Save Our Local Pharmacies campaign calling on the Government to protect the valuable services they provide.
Labour MP Taiwo Owatemi, a qualified pharmacist and chairman of the cross-party group, said: ‘Pharmacies stepped up when the country needed them most’
Pharmacies already undertake more than 65million informal consultations a year. However, unlike other services, none of these consultations has specific funding attached to them.
The report says a key way local pharmacies could take even more pressure off the NHS would be by allowing them to supply prescription-only medicines and by introducing a ‘walk-in option’, with an increased number of conditions they can treat via this service.
Labour MP Taiwo Owatemi, a qualified pharmacist and chairman of the cross-party group, said: ‘Pharmacies stepped up when the country needed them most, relieving pressure from other parts of the health service during the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic.
‘They have shown how much more they could do if given the right policy support and funding.’
Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, stressed that GP practices are run as private businesses just like pharmacies.
She said: ‘The community pharmacy network is a highly efficient part of the NHS because our business model is flexible and there are many cost-effective solutions that our network could offer if the NHS bosses cared to explore.
‘The flexibility and accessibility was well evidenced during the pandemic when we kept our doors open and saw patients face to face.
‘Our accessibility to homes and communities makes us a logical solution to improving patients outcomes and wellbeing.
‘An adequately funded Pharmacy First Scheme would mean that rather than patients going to GPs for minor ailments they would go to their local pharmacy.
‘That would instantly free up GP appointments and A&E time, saving NHS money, as the figures highlighted by the report.’
Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘Our high street and online pharmacist colleagues do an excellent job for their communities and are providing invaluable support to many GP practice teams against a backdrop of huge workload and workforce pressures, so it is right that they are given the support they need to stay viable and available for people with minor illnesses and ailments.
‘Pharmacy also has a workforce crisis, and their premises infrastructures will need considerable upgrading to be able to offer confidential services to patients.
‘If implemented, this is not likely to be a money-saving option.
‘Pharmacists are not a substitute for GPs and the services they provide must not be seen as ‘GPs on the cheap’.
‘While we are keen to see initiatives that will ease the pressure on our struggling family doctor service, pharmacists should not be expected to work beyond their areas of competency, and the Government will find that their role is not a solution to the chronic shortage of GPs, as many patients come to see us with more than one problem, and some of the issues on the list can be quite complex medical problems.
‘Patients should be able to get high quality, safe, and appropriate care when they need it – and in many cases, they will need the expert diagnostic skills and expertise of a GP.’
Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, which represents pharmacists in their negotiations with government and the NHS, said pharmacists could take on more than 80 million appointments a year for a fraction of what the NHS pays GPs.
He added: ‘We know that pharmacies already do much to reduce the pressure on general practice but that there is significant scope for more.
‘Upscaling the provision of winter vaccinations through pharmacy sites – as happened through the pandemic when pharmacies administered 22 million Covid vaccinations in one year – could save GPs a significant amount of time on vaccination clinics each year.
‘Over time, making pharmacies the go-to place for all vaccinations would have an even greater impact.
‘We would also like to see a Pharmacy First service commissioned and we put a bid to Government for this last year.
‘We estimated that an initial investment of at least £400m in such a service would be needed, but that such a service, with the right investment and prescribing rights for pharmacists, could eventually see pharmacies taking on more than 80 million appointments each year.
‘The cost of pharmacy interventions has historically been less than the cost of GP appointments, making pharmacies a highly cost-effective investment for the NHS.’
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: ‘Over the next 18 months we will be increasing the support pharmacists can provide, including taking referrals from A&E, managing oral contraception needs and supporting patients who have been newly prescribed anti-depressants.’