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Government Progress on Pharmacy 'Requires Improvement'

High street pharmacies in England are struggling to keep up with rising demand for services, and some are at risk of going out of business, according to a House of Commons report.

An inquiry by an expert panel of the Health and Social Care Committee, evaluating Government commitments on pharmacy, reported that overall progress required improvement across a number of key areas.

The panel found evidence that available funding was insufficient to ensure community pharmacies could remain open in the face of increased demand for dispensing, workforce pressures, and rising costs caused by inflation. 

Experts said there was concern that this could disproportionately affect communities in deprived areas where healthcare needs were likely to be high, with some pharmacies already reducing their opening hours or restricting access to weekdays only.

The panel criticised the Government for reneging on a commitment to review the funding model, which witnesses described as "broken".

Inadequate Progress on E-prescribing

Community pharmacy was one of five areas of pharmacy reviewed by the panel along with integrated care, hospital pharmacy, workforce education and training, and extended services.

Progress on a commitment by Government to eliminate paper prescribing in hospitals and introduce digital or 'e-prescribing' across the entire NHS by 2024, was rated as 'inadequate' overall, with experts saying that poor 'digital maturity' was partly responsible and that even prioritised funding for IT services was inadequate.

On workforce education and training, the report found progress on rolling out a 3-year education and training programme for primary care and community pharmacy professionals required improvement, with providers unable to afford to pay to backfill staff sent on courses. 

A commitment to make legislative changes to improve the skill mix in pharmacies and enable the clinical integration of pharmacists had not been delivered and was rated 'inadequate'.

Out of nine commitments separately evaluated over five areas, two were rated as 'good', five as 'requires improvement', and two were judged 'inadequate'.

Professor Dame Jane Dacre, chair of the expert panel, said: "Pharmacy plays a key role in the delivery of care, so it’s disappointing that progress overall to deliver on the Government’s commitments was rated as ‘requires improvement’."

Steve Brine MP, chair of the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, which is conducting a separate inquiry into the future of pharmacy, said: "Success will rest on resolving challenges around funding, the digital infrastructure, and crucially, workforce skills and training."

"Wake-up Call" for Government

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) described the expert panel report as "a wake-up call for Government". In an emailed comment, RPS director for England, James Davies, said it "highlights the recurrent theme of inadequate funding to support the Government's ambitions".

Community pharmacies are "still lumbered with an absurd prescription charging system, which is effectively a tax on the sick", he highlighted, and said the Society wanted to see prescription charges abolished for people in England, as was already the case in the rest of the UK.

A recent analysis of pharmacy closures "shows that there were more than five times as many closures in health-deprived areas compared with the number of closures in the least deprived areas", he noted.

On digital prescribing, Mr Davies said: "Pharmacists in the community urgently need to have access to patients' full medical notes, and the ability to amend their record once they have treated them, to improve care and communication across the system."

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