The measures, expected to take effect this winter, will enable pharmacists to prescribe antibiotics and antiviral drugs for common ailments including urinary tract infections, sore throat and earache.
Women will also be able to obtain oral contraception from the pharmacist.
The move is part of a wider ‘primary care recovery plan’ set out by prime minister Rishi Sunak yesterday, which aims to end the “8am scramble” for doctors’ appointments and restore public faith with GP surgeries.
According to NHS England, the £645 million initiative will free up around 15 million GP appointments over the next two years.
Patients will also be able to self-refer for more services, with NHS England aiming to double the number of people able to access blood pressure checks in pharmacies from 900,000 last year to 2.5 million a year.
The reforms have been widely welcomed by industry leaders, with Mark Hewlett, global CEO of 2San, telling BioPharma-Reporter that he “wholeheartedly endorses” the new plan and believes it will have a positive impact on the UK healthcare landscape.
“Pharmacists are already a really important part of our healthcare system in the UK and by providing additional services, they could play a key role in alleviating the intense pressure on general practitioners,” he said.
“By freeing up doctor’s surgeries, these slots can be used by people who have more severe health concerns, whereas pharmacists can deal with more minor ailments, therefore closing that loop with prescriptions being dispensed at the point of care.”
However, there are concerns that the new measures will create a reliance on pharmacists, who may not be able to cope with the extra demand. In addition, the blueprint does not address the shortage of GPs or outline plans to recruit and retain more medical staff.
Having worked closely with pharmacies across the UK on the distribution of Covid-19 tests, Mark believes this risk is “small and manageable” as chemists have demonstrated their resilience in the face of overwhelming demand.
“Pharmacies are key pillars of local communities and I think the government is providing funding for this to happen in a way that is manageable and should not overwhelm them. If the plan is structured accordingly and supported by access to products, such as self-diagnostic tests, it is deliverable," he said.
In terms of criticism over GP recruitment, Mark adds that the government is “damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t”.
“There is a multi-prong approach here that the government is trying to take, by investing in and supporting local pharmacies, as well as trying to recruit and retain more general practitioners,” he added.
“The challenge with the latter is that takes time to recruit and train a GP and then to retain them over the course of their career.
“That is the long-term strategy, but the latest plan is a quicker solution to relieve pressure in the immediate, short term that may allow the stability to be brought back into the GP network. Rather than throwing the burden back to a GP, patients can seek consultation first and foremost at the local level before escalating it further.
“You won’t fix this with a single solution and the government is trying to be innovative and creative and follow models that have worked elsewhere.”