Chris Ford warns that the proposed cuts to community pharmacy funding represent a set back to tackling health inequalities and a major loss of important community assets.
I know the kind of pressures local authorities are facing. I am a councillor and every meeting brings hard decisions, while we take on ever more responsibilities.
This is particularly true in the case of public health. In April’s edition of C’llr you heard from Catherine Heffernan from NHS England, who spoke about the opportunities offered by devolution. She rightly pointed out the need to work in partnerships that span communities.
Ironically though, it’s one of our core local healthcare providers, with the greatest presence in the community, that is most under threat from central government funding cuts and policy diktats; community pharmacy.
Community pharmacy is a frequent touch-point for almost everyone. You may be popping in for a prescription, managing a life-long condition or simply in need of some advice on which over the counter medicine to buy for a bad cold. In fact the average person visits a pharmacy 14 time each year.
Pharmacies represent the most accessible primary care location, with 96 per cent of people able to get to a pharmacy within 20 minutes by walking or using public transport (99 per cent by car). Most community pharmacies have extended hours and weekend opening that GPs are unlikely to offer at scale any time soon.
All of this helps to relieve pressure on our hard-pressed GPs and A&E Departments, freeing them to make a difference to those patients who are truly in need of their help. In fact, as many as 20% of all GP appointments could be dealt with just as effectively, and far more rapidly, through community pharmacy.
However, as things currently stand, plans to cut the sector’s funding could lead to the closure of up to one in four of England’s pharmacies.
Pharmacy Voice, an association of trade bodies representing the sector, is concerned that these cuts will have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable. Research shows that communities in greatest need of health services are, in reality, frequently under-doctored. In these areas, local pharmacies are not just an invaluable community asset, dispensing medicines and vital public health services, they are a key to unlocking deep-rooted health inequalities. Such communities simply cannot afford to lose these vital assets – nor can overstretched local GPs and A&E departments be expected to pick up the slack.
Let us also not forget the wider utility of pharmacy to our communities. As well as being healthcare providers, they are also vital businesses, not only contributing to local employment and business rates but also driving footfall on to the high street, underpinning vibrant local economies.
So when proposals to cut pharmacy funding talk about there being ‘more pharmacies than are needed’, we are puzzled. How can the government allow unchecked growth of betting shops on our high streets – with all the social and health problems they cause – but seem hell-bent on cutting back on businesses that have a solely beneficial effect on the health and wellbeing of the people they serve?
The interests of local authorities are at risk here too. Those all-important partnerships we spoke about rely upon pharmacies having the capacity to take on more responsibility, in partnership with their local health and wellbeing boards and others – something the sector is eager to do, if it is properly resourced.
As a local councillor, I would urge you to do what so many of your colleagues have already done – write to your local MP and the Department of Health to let them know what your local pharmacy means to the people you represent – help them to understand how little your local community can afford to lose their pharmacies.
Chris Ford is Public Affairs and Communications Manager at Pharmacy Voice and a councillor on Chiltern District Council.
This article appears in the June edition of c’llr magazine.