Following the recent move that saw responsibility for public health handed over to local councils, there is increasing pressure on Clinical Commissioning Groups to improve the quality of service provided to the public. Having been a practicing pharmacist for over 25 years, I'm well aware of the wealth of ways in which pharmacists can be leaned upon by the public as a source of information when it comes to minor ailments, the prevention of diseases, management of long term illness and getting the best from your medicines (medicine optimisation). There are some 80,000 practicing pharmacists in the UK, and I think we are underestimating the role they can play in improving public health at a local level.
Knowing for some time that pharmacy advice can play a central role in improving the health literacy of the nation, at Sainsbury's Pharmacy we commissioned a yearlong experiment to prove it. The Wells family Challenge, working with think tank 2020health, explored the potential impact that regular advice and support from an in-store pharmacist could have on the health and wellbeing of ten families from across the UK. Whilst this was done on a small scale, the results demonstrate that minimum intervention from a pharmacist can help make dramatic improvements to an individual's health and act as proof of principal for what could be achieved should the experiment be replicated on a larger scale.
All participants in the experiment achieved remarkable results in terms of improving their lifestyles and overall health, but the biggest overall impact of pharmacist intervention was an improvement in health literacy for all participants. This has far-reaching potential, as all participants said that the advice from their pharmacist enabled them to 'join the dots' and understand the link between health, food, exercise and, more importantly, preventing illness.
In terms of the hard and fast results, 65% of adult participants lost weight with an average of 4kg each, women lost 5cm off their waist line, 58% reduced their risk of a heart attack or stroke and 68% suffered from high cholesterol at the start of the challenge which halved to 32% at the end.
Another extremely important outcome is the role the pharmacists played in the early detection of preventable conditions. Significantly, 81% of participants who were suffering from high cholesterol were completely unaware and only had it detected as a result of taking part in the challenge. Furthermore, three quarters of those suffering from high blood pressure only became aware of it through their pharmacist detecting it. High levels of blood pressure and cholesterol can act as indicators of a person contracting cardiovascular disease in later life hence, if pharmacists can play an active role through providing monitoring services for cholesterol, blood pressure and weight management as well as guidance on poor lifestyle choices, this could in turn help alleviate pressures on GP workloads and the NHS in the long-term.
The Wells Family Challenge proves that pharmacy advice in action can help families across the UK achieve gradual and sustained positive lifestyle changes that can make their health aspirations a reality.
So within the new NHS landscape, and as local health delivery systems take shape, we need to increase the understanding of the pharmacist's role and the value they bring to preventing ill health and assisting the public in self managed treatments.
In a nutshell, we need to adopt a pharmacy first approach. In our experiment that I have outlined above, ten pharmacists changed the lives of ten families in one year. Just imagine the impact 80,000 pharmacists could achieve, across the country, five or ten years down the line.