NPN | NHS Challenges that Pharmacy Could Solve

COVID-19 has undeniably exacerbated health challenges and inequalities that were already present before the pandemic began, placing a keen focus on the importance of keeping people out of hospital through a combination of health and social care. With the National Health Service challenged to reshape itself around the needs of patients, pharmacies are stepping up to address some of the issues at the heart of the NHS.

The UK’s healthcare service is facing a number of unprecedented challenges in 2021, and these obstacles will require a long term response to deal with the backlog of healthcare - both mental and physical - caused by the pandemic, and to create a system that will manage health inequalities and the other serious weaknesses exposed by COVID-19.

As the NHS battles through the most ambitious vaccination campaign in history, the resurgence of the virus has seen more patients admitted to hospital at higher numbers than seen in the previous peak in April. With focus placed on developing services for patients with long covid, non-covid conditions have been scaled back - and in some instances, ceased entirely, at least on a temporary basis.

The NHS is inevitably going to see an increase in waiting times for diagnosis and treatment, especially when paired with the backlog from 2020. At last count, there were 162 000 patients who had been waiting for over 52 weeks - it’s increasingly clear that meeting the standard of 18 weeks is likely to take years.

Community Pharmacists receive training in managing minor illnesses, placing them in the perfect position to assess symptoms and recommend the best course of treatment. As GPs fill up with people seeking advice, Pharmacists should become the first port of call for anyone suffering from a non-urgent healthcare problem. Pharmacists can provide over-the-counter medicine for a range of common conditions or minor injuries, and can answer questions on prescription medicines. In instances where the Pharmacy cannot help, Pharmacists are in the ideal position to recommend and help people through the process of seeking the correct service that will provide the necessary assistance.

The virus has exposed persistent inequalities in health, such as the differential effect of the pandemic on ethnic minority groups and communities that are deprived. Mental health and wellbeing services have been crippled, too - already under pressure, these services have been stretched to breaking point in the face of rising demand. With one estimate suggesting that up to 10 million people will require new or additional mental health support, it’s clear that the long term effects are going to be considerable.

Pharmacies provide easily accessible healthcare and support, including services dedicated to maintaining the health of the general population rather than simply treating ill-health. On-going campaigns such as the stop-smoking service not only provide support for local communities, but also take strain off the NHS in the long run as pharmacies promote healthier lifestyles and provide the infrastructure necessary for people to stick with their choices.

The vaccination campaign is going well - with 95% of over 70s jabbed, and 88% of 45-50 year olds. As we move towards flu season and the colder months approach, it’s important that NHS and Pharmacies continue to work together to share the load and ease the strain.