The Government's decision to push ahead with the huge funding cut for community pharmacies shows no understanding of the contribution that community pharmacies make to patients, communities and to the NHS as a whole. I was the proud owner of a community pharmacy in Burnley form 1986-2010 and I know just how vital these community assets are.
That's why Labour is announcing today that we are calling a vote in Parliament next week on the cuts to community pharmacies and urging Tory MPs to vote with us to save their local pharmacies.
How often have we heard in recent times the NHS slogan "The Right Care, at the Right Time, in the Right place?" For many healthcare and general well being needs, the local pharmacy is the right place to provide treatments, advice and important signposting. Pharmacists have five years of intensive training and really are the experts on all issues related to medication. They keep up to date by means of a comprehensive programme of continuing professional development and standards are rigorously monitored by the General Pharmaceutical Council. As an absolute minimum all pharmacy staff are trained to give advice on the safe use and sale of medicines and it is not unusual for staff to have completed training to support the pharmacist with everything from dispensing to patient counselling.
It really is time that the Government recognised that the contribution of community pharmacies goes way beyond the dispensing of prescriptions and the sale of paracetamols. On the contrary the typical community pharmacy provides a whole range of services to assist with the promotion of health and well being in the wider community. All community pharmacies have consulting areas where patients can speak privately also providing a perfect space for the provision of a variety of important services which typically include smoking cessation programmes, dietary advice, Emergency Hormonal Contraception (the morning after pill) and the administration of flu vaccines.
Far from being a costly drain on NHS resources, community pharmacy is well placed to actually save vital funds in a variety of ways. MURs (medication use reviews) are a good example of this. MURs are offered by most community pharmacies and are particularly helpful for patients who take a lot of medication on a regular basis, ensuring that the patient has the right combination of items, that they understand what their medication is for and when and how it should be taken.
Such reviews often identify medicines that are routinely ordered but no longer needed and thus wasteful stockpiling of such items can be avoided. In many parts of the country minor ailment schemes operated by community pharmacies provide a useful and cost effective service whereby pharmacists can issue treatments for a whole range of minor ailments. Not only is such a service convenient for patients, removing the necessity for a GP appointment it is an immense help to the GP practice freeing up time for doctors to see patients with more serious conditions. It is of course hard to quantify the savings that this generates in terms of the cost of GPs time but they surely go beyond significant and have the added benefit of taking pressure from busy GPs facing unprecedented levels of demand. It is even harder to evaluate the financial benefit and wider social impact of the extensive support that community pharmacies provide for patients with substance abuse issues including methadone programmes and needle exchange schemes.
While the debate has rolled on in recent months there has been much discussion about the value of pharmacies in isolated rural communities. Undoubtedly pharmacies are vital in such communities, but I would just like to take a moment to consider the value of community pharmacies to urban populations and particularly areas of high deprivation. In community settings where low pay, poor housing, child poverty, substance abuse and unhealthy lifestyles combine to affect the life chances and life expectancy of too many, the community pharmacy with its trusted, well qualified community pharmacist really is a godsend. Such pharmacies are the true gateway to the NHS and perform a vitally important role. Community pharmacists are the most accessible health professionals by virtue of long opening hours and 'a no appointment necessary' approach. In these times when 1 in 4 have to wait a week or more to see a GP, or can't get an appointment at all, local pharmacies are often the sole provider of continuity of care and the pharmacist is too often the only familiar face in an overstretched primary care team. Most community pharmacies offer a free prescription collection and delivery service that ensures that housebound patients and busy working people get the medication that they need in a timely fashion. In addition for those who wish to self medicate, thereby saving the NHS money, community pharmacies provide conveniently located, free professional advice on full a range of OTC (over the counter) and POM ( pharmacy only medicines) and as such are often the first port of call for such patients.
The Department of Health has made no secret of its efforts to reduce demand on the NHS and it is a fact that no health professional is better placed than the community pharmacist to promote healthy living and therefore the prevention of illness. Community pharmacists dispense thousands of prescriptions each month and every one presents the opportunity for a productive health intervention. In addition these pharmacies play a key role in reducing the number of hospital admissions and the support they provide for the elderly following discharge from hospital is crucial to minimise the risk of re-admission. The government should be trumpeting the advent of Healthy Living Pharmacies and working with the sector to further extend their role thereby supporting patients, reducing costs and easing pressure on other parts of the NHS.
If community pharmacies close, and it was a Government minister who admitted these cuts could lead to up to 3,000 closing, where will all their patients go? They and their problems won't just disappear. Some will pack out their GP surgery and others will head straight to A&E.
The NHS is already in the throes of a staffing and funding crisis and forcing community pharmacies to cut back services and close down is short sighted in the extreme, and could have catastrophic in the long term.
Labour knows the value of local pharmacies and so do all the communities across the country who rely on them. That's why we've called this vote next week and I urge all responsible, discerning Tory MPs, whose constituents will be hit hard by these cuts, to vote with us.