Defining the evolving role of the pharmacist

The pressures on overstretched NHS resources are well documented and well understood. With increasing focus on better integrated and connected care in the community, especially for those with long-term conditions, our healthcare system must adapt to meet 21st century needs. Fortunately, a new route is emerging that gives patients anywhere in England access to the specialist support they need: the ‘distance-selling’ pharmacy, as Zara Syed, Lead Pharmacist, Spirit Health Group, explains. 

Increasingly, many long-term conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes (T2D), require specialist support from a healthcare professional – but with GP services struggling to cope with demand, accessing that support can be difficult. Patients need to be able to turn to professionals to answer their real-world questions and help keep them on the right road when their progress threatens to go off track. That theory sounds great, but how do you deliver it?

‘Distance-selling’ online pharmacies are, in addition to dispensing prescribed medicines, becoming increasingly effective in providing additional services to help patients control, manage and become educated about their specialist conditions. Their emergence is a remarkable proposition: in addition to looking to GPs for support, patients now have the ability to turn to the pharmacy they choose to dispense their prescription for additional help, from the comfort and privacy of their home, wherever that may be and whenever they choose.

Keeping a healthy distance

Although it’s often overlooked, UK consumers have complete freedom and flexibility to choose where they get their prescriptions dispensed. GPs are not allowed to ‘direct’ us to any particular pharmacy and we’re not restricted by geographical boundaries – we can send our prescriptions to any licensed pharmacy anywhere in England. Yet we rarely take advantage of the opportunity – often choosing the dispensary at our practice or the nearest high street pharmacy. However, whilst convenient, these may not always be the best options. Alternatives exist that provide value for patients far beyond the medicine.  ‘Distance-selling’ pharmacies are one such emerging option.

Distance-selling pharmacies are registered pharmacies that provide pharmacy services ‘at a distance’, including via the internet.  Forbidden from face-to-face engagement with patients, they must service every part of England rather than a defined locality. Once a patient has registered, prescriptions can be collected by pharmacy staff or received in the post or electronically from a patient’s GP. Crucially, distance-selling pharmacies are able to offer ‘enhanced’ services to patients that can be harder for busy high street pharmacies or dispensing practices to provide.

For example, unlike high street pharmacies, which by their nature have to be generalists, distance-selling pharmacies have the ability to specialise in services and medicines to support specific conditions. In fact, the specialist model is well-suited to diabetes, providing a gateway for patients to access personalised support, advice and education for the duration of their treatment. The best are run by pharmacists that specialise in a specific condition, allowing them to provide expert one-to-one telephone or digital support for patients. In addition, some distance operators provide innovative – and properly supported – ‘On Demand’ models of education that are accessible anytime, and anywhere.

Specialist pharmacies, provided at distance, offers advantages that are rarely available via traditional routes of NHS care. Patients are able to build trusted relationships with expert healthcare professionals that are simply not possible within busy healthcare services or on the hectic shop floor of retail pharmacy. Although community pharmacists are highly accessible, distance-selling pharmacies have the added benefit of providing a highly safe, convenient and confidential environment, giving patients the time and space to have what can often be quite personal conversations with experts, without feeling rushed or exposed. What’s more, because these services are run by specialists, patients have the reassurance of knowing that the information they’re being given is reliable, accurate and, crucially, helpful.

Fundamentally, specialist distance-selling pharmacies give patients easy access to trusted information, support and expertise that’s rarely available anywhere else in the NHS. Their services can play a huge role in helping patients manage their conditions. However, provision of these services is intrinsically linked to the prescription. Patients can only benefit from the specialist services on offer if their prescription is dispensed by the same provider. It is key for patients to choose the right pharmacy to dispense their prescription. Ironically, in the final reckoning, it’s distance that could bring them closer to their goal and the wider ambitions of the NHS.