The UK’s health service introduced a pharmacist referral scheme in October to relieve pressure on GPs and emergency departments… could this work here in Australia?
More than 100,000 patients have had appointments with “expert pharmacists” in the last 10 weeks as part of a new scheme to relieve pressure on GPs and emergency departments, says the UK Government’s Department of Health and Social Care.
The government rolled out the community pharmacist consultation service in October last year, enabling National Health Service (NHS) health advisers to refer patients with minor illnesses to their local pharmacy for assessment and treatment.
Since the scheme began, 114,275 patients with minor illnesses or who needed medicines were referred to a local pharmacist.
The appointments comprised 64,067 (56%) urgent medication requests for conditions such as diabetes and asthma, and 50,208 people (44%) with a minor illness given clinical advice, such as for a sore throat or earache.
More than 10,600 pharmacies are currently registered with the scheme, which is funded as part of the £2.592 billion (AUD4.89 billion) per year agreed in the UK government’s community pharmacy five-year contract.
The role of pharmacists is important in the NHS plan, which encourages the public “to make better use of clinical expertise closer to home,” says the Department of Health and Social Care.
“Pharmacists are highly skilled health professionals who have five years of training, giving them expert knowledge on how to use medicines to support patients,” it says.
UK Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “I want to see pharmacists ready and able to do much more to help people stay healthy and prevent pressure on hospitals.
“This ‘pharmacy first’ approach makes life easier for patients and will help reduce pressure on the NHS,” said Mr Hancock.
“I want to see more patients with minor illnesses assessed close to home, saving them unnecessary trips to [emergency departments] or the GP, and helping people get the care and advice they need quicker.
“Thousands of patients receiving same-day advice from highly skilled pharmacists is exactly what we need. Community pharmacy is an integral and trust part of the NHS and we want every patient with a minor illness to think ‘pharmacy first’.”
The Pharmacy Guild of Australia has been lobbying for pharmacists to be similarly recognised as having the ability to treat common ailments, on the backdrop of an Australian health system that is “struggling under the weight of a growing and ageing population”.
“Pharmacists are in a unique position to relieve the stresses and strains on the health system,” said the Guild in its policy paper released in mid-2019.
Guild national president George Tambassis said giving pharmacists a bigger role would have the most impact in regional Australia where the GP shortage was most pronounced.
“Much of regional and rural Australia is struggling with a shortage of GPs. When people living in regional areas already have poorer health outcomes than those in cities, we should be doing everything to improve their access to high quality, affordable healthcare.”
PSA national president Chris Freeman said pharmacists deal with minor ailments as part of their practice everyday and community pharmacy is well placed to build on this activity.
“Expansion of triage and referral programs within community pharmacy have the opportunity to significantly reduce the impact on emergency departments, which are becoming overwhelmed with lower acuity type presentations contributing to longer waiting times in the ED and increased costs to state governments,” said A/Prof Freeman.
He said it is important that the role of community pharmacists in this area “is supported by government as a way of getting the most appropriate care to a patient in a timely manner in a way that reduces costs to the consumer, and governments more broadly.”