A New Era in Healthcare: Pharmacy First Initiative Launches in England

Today marks a significant milestone in the healthcare landscape of England as the highly anticipated Pharmacy First Initiative officially launches, ushering in a new era of accessible and patient-centric healthcare services.

The Pharmacy First Initiative is a collaborative effort between the Government, healthcare professionals, and the pharmaceutical industry. It recognizes the valuable role that pharmacists play in our communities, leveraging their expertise to address minor health concerns, provide timely advice and improve patient outcome. With a focus on early intervention and preventative care, the initiative is set to redefine the way individuals access essential healthcare services. 

Key Features of the Pharmacy First Initiative 

Expanded Services: Pharmacists will now be authorized to offer a wider array of services, including minor ailment consultations, medication reviews, and lifestyle advice. This expanded scope of practice ensures that community pharmacies become a one-stop destination for various healthcare needs. As of December 2023, Pharmacies are also providing the oral contraceptive pill, so women no longer have to speak to a GP or nurse first. 

Preventative Healthcare: Pharmacists will actively engage in promoting preventative healthcare measures, offering guidance on vaccinations, smoking cessation, and lifestyle modifications to enhance overall well-being. 

Improved Accessibility: By utilizing the extensive network of community pharmacies, the Pharmacy First Initiative ensures that healthcare services are more accessible. This is particularly beneficial for individuals in remote or underserved areas, offering them a convenient alternative to traditional healthcare settings. 8 in 10 people live within a 20 minute walk of their Pharmacy. 

Timely Intervention: The initiative emphasizes early intervention and prevention, allowing pharmacists to identify and address health concerns at an early stage. This proactive approach is designed to improve health outcomes, reduce the burden on other healthcare providers, and enhance overall community well-being. 

Collaborative Healthcare Ecosystem: The Pharmacy First Initiative fosters collaboration between pharmacists and other healthcare professionals, creating a more integrated and seamless healthcare ecosystem. This collaborative approach ensures that patients receive comprehensive and coordinated care. 

Pharmacists’ concerns 

According to a recent survey by the Pharmacists' Defence Association (PDA), nearly half of the over 3,500 pharmacists surveyed expressed concerns that community pharmacies lack adequate staffing to safely deliver both current and new services, such as the Pharmacy First initiative. Only 4% of pharmacists feel confident that community pharmacies can manage the additional workload from Pharmacy First. Despite strong support for the initiative's principles, respondents cited existing sector conditions for their scepticism. 

While 84% of respondents believe Pharmacy First could improve patient care if properly introduced and resourced, worries persisted regarding the current state of the sector, with 49% stating that there is not enough staff to safely provide existing services. Additionally, concerns about inadequate training before the service launch were raised, with just 1% of respondents having completed all training.  

Others are warning that the 1.2 billion pounds funding gap is creating an overload on the industry. 

Despite these challenges, the Department of Health emphasized that over 93% of pharmacies have enrolled to provide the service, backed by a government commitment of up to £645 million to support Pharmacy First. 

Government commitments  

In addition to £645 million investment over the next two years to help pharmacies deliver these services, the government announced that it aims to deliver 2.5 million blood pressure checks in community pharmacies by spring 2025, which could prevent more than 1,350 heart attacks and strokes in the first year alone. 

Alongside various service expansions, these changes could free up 10 million GP appointments a year, reducing the 8 am rush on GP appointment waitlists and helping deliver the primary care recovery plan. 

Moving Forward

Despite commendable efforts, achieving truly accessible primary care for all remains a considerable task. The ongoing NHS workforce crisis, increasing backlogs, and limited funding highlight the urgent need to ensure healthcare is not only accessible but also tailored to diverse community needs.  

Amidst these pressing challenges, Policy Connect and the All-Party Parliamentary Health Group (APPG for Health) are launching an inquiry on ‘Access to Primary Care Services’. This inquiry will report on ways to enhance access for specific demographics, including those with long-term health conditions, disabilities, minority groups, and addressing regional variations in care.  

Emphasising the role of Integrated Care Systems (ICS) and Integrated Care Boards (ICB) in delivery, the report aims to promote seamless collaboration among Primary Care providers, including GPs and Pharmacists. The research output will yield policy recommendations for a sustainable healthcare transition and be released during a parliamentary launch event. We are now actively seeking collaboration and funders for this report. We invite interested organisations, university research departments, or stakeholders to join in collaborating on this vital report, emphasising the collective effort required to shape the future of accessible and inclusive primary care. Interested parties are encouraged to reach out for collaboration opportunities to jasmin.adebisi [at] policyconnect.org.uk