In the first 10 weeks of the NHS Community Pharmacist Consultation Service (CPCS), a total of 114,275 patients with minor illnesses, or those who urgently needed medicines, were directed from NHS 111 to a consultation with their local pharmacist.
This comprised 64,067 requests for urgent medication for conditions such as diabetes or asthma, and clinical advice provided to 50,208 people with a minor illness such as a sore throat or earache.
The DHSC says the scheme, which launched last October, has helped to relieve pressure on the wider NHS, including GP surgeries, by connecting patients with community pharmacists - although GP leaders have warned that patients seen by pharmacists may still have subsequently seen a GP or ended up in A&E.
The highest number of same-day pharmacist referrals were made in the northwest of England with pharmacists receiving 20,972 referrals - most of which (13,262) were for urgent medicine supplies.
Reduce NHS pressures
Health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, said: ‘This pharmacy first approach makes life easier for patients and will help reduce pressure in the NHS. I want to see more patients with minor illnesses assessed close to home, saving them unnecessary trips to A&E or the GP, and helping people get the care and advice they need quicker… we want every patient with a minor illness to think ‘pharmacy first’.
‘Our record financial commitment for the NHS of £33.9bn extra every year within the next five years – which we’re enshrining in law – will also allow us to expand frontline services with 50,000 more nurses, 6,000 more GPs and 6,000 more primary care professionals.’
A total of 10,610 pharmacies have already registered with the CPCS and the enhanced role for pharmacists is a key part of the NHS long-term plan, encouraging the public to make better use of clinical expertise closer to home.
The ‘pharmacy first’ approach is funded through the £2.592bn per year agreed in the five-year community pharmacy contractual framework, which sets out an expanded role for community pharmacy in helping more people stay well closer to home.
The government confirmed the consultation service is expected to expand to referrals from general practice by the end of 2020, subject to successful evaluation of pilots. An April 2020 rollout date had originally been planned.
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'Community pharmacists play a hugely important role in healthcare, and directing more patients to them is certainly a sensible thing to do in situations that don’t demand GP or emergency attention.
'While these results are promising, however, we cannot assume that everyone who contacted NHS 111 and was directed to a pharmacist still didn’t go to their GP or local emergency department.'
GP practices delivered a record 30.8m appointments in October 2019 - by far the highest figure recorded in a single month since NHS Digital began collecting data almost two years ago.
Meanwhile, a recent GMC report found the GP workforce were operating under huge pressure, with one in six GPs considering quitting medicine entirely within the next year. The same study found almost a quarter of GPs polled by the regulator 'gave responses that suggested they were at high risk of burnout'.
As part of the PCN DES, primary care networks have been supported to recruit 'an army' of 20,000 new staff to support primary care and ease pressure on GPs, with clinical pharmacists one of five roles they can recruit to.