Beginning next month, thousands of women in England will be able to get the contraceptive pill at a pharmacy as part of reforms aimed at easing pressure on GP services.
The Pharmacy First plan, announced in May this year, committed to enabling community pharmacies to supply prescription-only medicines for seven common conditions by the end of 2023.
Earlier this year, more than a hundred pharmacies took part in a pilot trial on supplying contraception, involving over 4500 women who had already accessed the pill.
Primary Care Recovery Plan
The rollout is part of NHS England's delivery plan for recovering access to primary care, with Pharmacy First predicted to save 10 million appointments in general practice each year once fully scaled up.
Tase Oputu, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's English Pharmacy Board, said the service and convenience offered by community pharmacies had received a "widespread welcome" in the pilot trial.
In addition to being able to receive a repeat supply, from December women across England will be able to get their first contraceptive pill from a local pharmacist, without needing to see their GP first.
Pharmacists to Ramp Up Blood Pressure Checks Next Year
Pharmacists would also increase the number of blood pressure checks given to at-risk patients, with a commitment to deliver 2.5 million a year by spring 2025—up from 900,000 carried out last year. NHS England estimated this could prevent more than 1350 heart attacks and strokes in the first year.
Beginning early next year, patients will also be able to get treatment for seven common conditions—sinusitis, sore throat, earache, infected insect bite, impetigo, shingles, and uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women—directly from a pharmacy, without the need for a GP appointment or prescription.
Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, said: "The care and support people receive from their local pharmacy is rightly highly valued by patients, and so it is essential we use the skills and convenience of community pharmacies to make it as easy as possible for people to get the help they need." And Jacob Lant, chief executive at National Voices, said it would mean the public could access help and support at a time and in a way that was "right for them".
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society said it welcomed the move as a first step towards wider prescribing services in pharmacy.
Warning on Joined Up Prescribing
William Pett, head of policy, public affairs, and research at Healthwatch England, believed the new service would be welcomed by women and could relieve the demands on hard-pressed services. However, he warned of potential problems, "such as pharmacists not being able to see enough of people's GP records, or the ability of different communities and areas to access the new service".
Commenting for Medscape News UK, Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chair of the Royal College of GPs, cautioned that despite pharmacists doing an excellent job for their communities and providing "invaluable" support to many GP practice teams, pharmacists and GPs were "distinct" health professionals.
In many cases, patients would need the adept diagnostic skills and expertise of a GP, she underlined, and so "neither should be seen as a substitute for the other".
Dr Anatole S Menon-Johansson, clinical director of the sexual health charity Brook, welcomed the expansion in access to oral contraception and predicted it would free up capacity in sexual and reproductive health clinics to "deliver long-acting reversible contraception, as well as contraception to women with complex medical needs". He told Medscape News UK, "The proposed change will increase access for women, and enable those women presenting for emergency contraception to also start on a method of contraception that is more effective than condoms."
While welcoming the rollout, the Family Planning Association cautioned that it only covered the pill, stressing that this method "isn't right for everyone", and that women must be offered appropriate information and access to the full range of contraception.
Also commenting for Medscape News UK, President of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, Dr Janet Barter, said the organisation fully supported the expansion for giving women "more autonomy over their lives".