Pharmacists in England have been handed new powers to prescribe medication for common illnesses under just-announced plans to relieve the pressure on GPs.
The new initiative, launched by the government and NHS England, will enable pharmacists to write their own prescriptions for a list of seven health conditions - meaning patients will not need to see their doctor first. Ministers have said this will ensure millions of people receive quicker and more convenient access to healthcare services.
It is also hoped that the multi-million pound “major expansion” will bring an end to the ‘8am scramble’ for a GP’s appointment, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak saying the plan could free up as many as 15 million slots. This, he said, will help get rid of the “all-too-stressful” wait patients currently undergo.
Concerns have been raised however that the plan will simply shift the pressure from doctor’s surgeries onto pharmacies, with campaigners warning more needs to be done to address staffing shortages, a funding crisis, and the roots of the problems at the NHS.
But the government has said that £645 million will be invested over the next two years to expand community pharmacy services, with £240 million given to GP practices to help them “embrace the latest technology”, such as by implementing easy-to-use online tools to “ensure patients get the care they need as soon as possible.”
So what illnesses will pharmacists be able to prescribe for, and when will the new plan be put in place? Here’s everything we know so far about the primary care “overhaul”.
Seven new conditions pharmacists can prescribe for
- Sore throat
- Infected insect bites
- Urinary tract infection
Can a pharmacist prescribe antibiotics?
Pharmacists will be able to prescribe antibiotics and other medications for these common healthcare issues under the new proposals, when cases are uncomplicated. Women will also be able to get oral contraceptive pills directly from pharmacies.
What has been said about the new plan?
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said: “We are already making real progress with 10% more GP appointments happening every month compared to before the pandemic. I want to make sure people receive the right support when they contact their general practice and bring an end to the 8am scramble for appointments.”
He added that the government plans to achieve this by “improving technology and reducing bureaucracy, increasing staffing and changing the way primary care services are provided, which are all helping to deliver on the government’s promise to cut waiting lists.”
Dr Amanda Doyle, national director of primary care and community services at NHS England, commented: “Produced by the NHS, this plan will make it easier for patients to access the care they need.
“GPs and their teams are already delivering half a million more appointments a week than before the COVID pandemic. However, we know staffing needs to be put on a sustainable footing so we are also working with government to publish a long term workforce plan.”
However, some have criticised the initiative, with Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting arguing that the Prime Minister is “completely out of touch with the problems facing patients and the NHS.” He continued: “He has no plan to address the shortage of GPs, or to reverse the cut in the number of doctors trained every year.
“The Conservatives’ announcement is merely tinkering at edges, in contrast to the fundamental reform the NHS needs and Labour is offering.”
It comes after industry groups warned that more and more pharmacies will close unless help is provided to the struggling sector, with an analysis from the BBC revealing that the number of community chemists in England had fallen by 160 over the last two years to 11,026 - the lowest number since 2015.
When will the primary care ‘overhaul’ be introduced?
NHS chiefs and government ministers have said the new plan will be implemented by winter 2023. Its announcement comes just ahead of the 75th anniversary of the NHS, on 5 July.