As a passionate advocate of joined-up patient care, I have long been concerned by the omission from discussions about the future of the NHS of a key healthcare profession - pharmacy.
It is estimated that one in seven GP visits could be effectively dealt with by a local pharmacist - at significantly less cost to an NHS that is battling a tough savings target and growing demand.
Around 1.2 million people visit a pharmacy every day for health-related reasons. Pharmacists are highly trained and skilled, and are, along with GPs - the 'front-line' of primary healthcare - offering convenient high street locations and longer opening hours than many GP practices.
Yet until now, pharmacy has remained on the periphery of the debate about how to better join up patient care.
I was therefore delighted to see the launch of an important new campaign, Dispensing Health - an effort by Pharmacy Voice to "promote the role of a pharmacist as a dispenser of health, as well as of medicines." The campaign is supported by leading healthcare bodies, including those representing NHS professionals and, crucially, patients.
A report published to launch the campaign highlights the key role that community pharmacists could play in primary care initiatives, long-term patient care and public health campaigns. It also issues a critical call to action for pharmacists to have access to electronic patient records to enable them to work more collaboratively with GPs to improve patients' healthcare journeys.
"It'll never happen" - so say the sceptics - "technology and operational culture clashes will always get in the way". I'm delighted to say that, in fact, it is already happening - with very encouraging results.
In East London, for example, I know of one GP practice that has seen major benefits from enabling the direct electronic transfer of prescription information between GP and pharmacist. As well as improving how emergency prescriptions are handled out-of-hours, the project has also reduced drug wastage. Both the GP and the pharmacist said they felt that patient care had been improved.
So what made the difference? For the pharmacist, having access to a full list of a patient's repeat medication meant he was better equipped to respond to patient requests and feedback about treatments. For the GP, communication with the pharmacist was made quicker and easier - for example, where patients were overdue a medication review.
But that's really just the tip of the iceberg. The potential benefits of better electronic communication between pharmacy and GP clinical systems go much further.
For example, enabling a two way flow of patient data between pharmacy and GP practice - always highly secure and with the patient's consent - would enable pharmacists to fulfill the wider role for which their years of training and experience have equipped them. This could mean they can carry out more effective medicine reviews for minor ailments, or help GPs to keep track of prescriptions that have not been dispensed, therefore monitoring compliance with a prescribed medication regime. It would mean that pharmacists can offer a patient some medication, say over a weekend, with full knowledge of their existing drug regime to avoid any potential harmful reactions.
This is an exciting prospect - a development that can deliver more accessible healthcare for patients and more efficient frontline services for the NHS. While pharmacists can of course never replace the important role of the GP, it is clear that there is much they can do to relieve the burden on family doctors and use their considerable professional skills for the wider benefit of the nation's health.Suggest a correction