06/10/2017 11:35 BST | Updated 06/10/2017 12:11 BST

It's Time To Address The Future Of Community Pharmacies

Among all the cost-cutting in the NHS it's vital that we safeguard the futures of community pharmacies and the pharmacists who carry out such important work.

All eyes have been on Manchester this week as the Conservative party held their annual conference.

But as a pharmacist, I was extremely disappointed that the future of community pharmacies was not addressed.

The industry is facing some of its toughest times, with speculation rife that cuts are afoot and pharmacists will be stripped of many of their day-to-day jobs, with responsibilities handed over to technicians instead.

The biggest problem is this: pharmacists are often the most accessible healthcare professionals for people.

You would be surprised at the number of people who walk into their local chemist and say 'can I speak to a pharmacist, please'. They might have a cold, or they might have a rash, or they might have taken some tablets and they feel dizzy.

Ultimately, they want some help and advice, and they wanted it fairly quickly and without having to make an appointment with their GP.

Pharmacists go through four years of training and generally have extensive knowledge about the suitability of medications, and what medicines work well with another.

We are the final gate post before the drug gets to the patient, and often the first person a patient comes to if they have any questions.

New plans, which Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is set to consider, include allowing technicians to supervise a pharmacy and hand out prescription-only medication without a pharmacist being present.

These plans have understandably caused controversy and a real fear that patients will suffer.

To put it simply, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians go through very different training and have very different skill sets.

Technicians are trained in accuracy. They are trained to make sure the right sticker is on the right box.

Pharmacists are trained in pharmacology. We don't just check prescriptions, but clinically assess the suitability of a medicine for the patient, and whether one medicine matches another.

If mistakes were to occur, in the most extreme cases it could mean life or death. This isn't an over exaggeration.

It's all too easy for government ministers to make decisions based on cost and balancing the books, without spending time fully getting to grips with what a pharmacist actually does.

If given the go ahead, the current legislation will need to be amended to allow 'pharmacy professionals' to take responsibility for the supply and sale of prescription only medicines.

This is simply a push-back and will put more pressure on over-stretched GP surgeries.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health previously said they wanted to "optimise" the skills of technicians and "make the best use of staff".

They added no changes would be made without proper consultation.

In response, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society recently produced an eight-point position statement setting out their objection to any plans which would involve 'pharmacies run without pharmacists'.

Among the points, they said they wanted to see "the law constructed so as to ensure the pharmacist always has the opportunity to undertake the clinical assessment or check".

They added they did not want to see any law changes "which could be used to operate pharmacies without pharmacists being present for anything other than very short periods of time".

I couldn't agree with this more.

Among all the cost-cutting in the NHS it's vital that we safeguard the futures of community pharmacies and the pharmacists who carry out such important work.