'30 million GP appointments to be freed up' as pharmacists to start seeing patients for simple and common illnesses

29 January 2024, 09:17

30 million GP appointments could be freed up
30 million GP appointments could be freed up. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Pharmacists will start seeing patients for simple and common illnesses from Wednesday in a plan expected to free up as many as 30 million GP appointments per year.

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People with illnesses such as earache, sinus complaints and urinary tract infections will be able to get treatment for chemists first, so that doctors can prioritise patients with more serious conditions.

Trained pharmacists at more than 10,000 locations across the country will treat people on a walk-in basis.

Dr Claire Fuller, the NHS' medical director for primary care and lead GP, said that the change would mean people can get treatment without an appointment in the course of their day-to-day activities, like after doing their shopping or running errands.

"While GPs like me will always be on hand to help, pharmacists at the heart of our communities are a convenient and safe option for people to get help for common conditions," she said.

Pharmacists can treat people and prescribe medicine for earache, sore throats, sinusitis, shingles, impetigo, urinary tract infections and infected insect bites and stings.

Read more: Patients 'at risk' as telephone and online GP appointments can miss serious illnesses, study finds

Read more: One in five GP appointments taken up by people who are just lonely, or need relationship, debt or housing advice

UK nurse and pharmacist working in pharmacy
UK nurse and pharmacist working in pharmacy. Picture: Alamy

The scheme appears to have worked in Scotland, where it has already been rolled out. Around a quarter of the population used a pharmacy first in Scotland in 2021/2022.

Of the people who used the pharmacy first service north of the border, 86% went home with medicine, 10% with advice, and 4% were referred on to other services like a GP.

If the figures were extrapolated to the greater population size of England, about 15 million people would be likely to use the pharmacy first service in a year.

According to NHS estimates, pharmacists could deliver about 6% of all GP appointments - or about 25 million.

But this could rise even further to 30 million if chemists were helped more with administrative issues and more funding, industry representatives have said.

The plan will free up million of GP appointments
The plan will free up million of GP appointments. Picture: Alamy

Nearly 23,000 pharmacists are unable to prescribe medicines independently.

Malcom Harrison of the Company Chemists Association welcomed the move to encourage people with simple health conditions to go to pharmacists first - but said the scheme could go further.

He said: "We are confident that the community pharmacy sector will deliver for patients and the NHS, just as it did during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But he added that "an ambitious and fully funded Pharmacy First service could free up 30 million GP appointments annually".

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Boots, which has 2,000 stores in the UK, welcomed the scheme, saying it was "going to make life much easier for patients to access the care and medicines they need quickly and will help create more capacity for GPs across England”.

Jamie Kerruish, the company's healthcare director, said: "We are very much looking forward to launching the NHS Pharmacy First service at our stores in England this week, following thorough and rapid preparation by our amazing pharmacy teams,” he said.

"We deliver similar services in Scotland and Wales where they are very popular, and we think patients in England will love the service too.”