Graham Jones is the Conservative leader of West Berkshire Council and a community pharmacist.
As a Conservative council leader for West Berkshire Council and also as a pharmacist, it’s not been easy to reconcile my life-long political beliefs with recent Government policies towards a profession I love.
For the last 18 months, community pharmacy has been embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Government. What has riled the profession is that recent policy overlooks the potential of local pharmacies to transform primary care – and indeed threatens to snuff out that potential.
It looks like this may be about to change. I truly hope so. As a pharmacist, I work at the very heart of the community I represent and I can see how much more we could do to relieve pressure on other parts of the system, ensuring healthcare is delivered more cost effectively and closer to those who need it.
I also know how frustrating it is to have all those little extra things we do to support local communities – which we don’t get paid for – taken for granted.
For those who use our services regularly, you will know that local pharmacies are as essential to the vibrancy of the high street as the corner shop or the pub. We are also a uniquely accessible source of advice about the health needs of individual patients and the wider population. And, unlike other healthcare professions, access to community pharmacy actually increases in areas of higher deprivation.
But as a leader within local government, I also recognise that, ultimately, money can only be stretched so far and that every part of the healthcare system – including community pharmacy – must learn to do ‘more for less’.
Of course, the third dimension to all of this is the voters. And given that the largest health related petition in history (2.2 million signatures) was submitted to Downing Street last year to oppose the Department of Health’s approach, I’m delighted to see Theresa May is now setting a new course for pharmacy in our manifesto.
It makes some positive noises about protecting rural pharmacies, which no doubt refers to the previously announced scheme to ensure chemists in isolated communities don’t close.
But the truly exciting passage is this: “We shall support more integrated working, including ensuring community pharmacies can play a stronger role to keep people healthy outside hospital within the wider health system”. This recognition of the potential for community pharmacy to intervene on emerging health crises – obesity, hypertension diabetes and many more – has been celebrated across the sector.
By driving the creation of more ‘Healthy Living Pharmacies’ (pharmacies accredited to deliver public health services) the Government has already taken the initial steps to ensure pharmacists and their teams are better skilled to intervene in a huge range of health care issues in a way which keeps people healthy, rather than just treating their illness.
For example, both my pharmacies operate successful smoking cessation clinics and I am working closely with a local primary school to promote a “growing healthy” programme to help tackle poor diet and lifestyle learnt at an early age. Elsewhere, pharmacists are commissioned to offer health checks to the over-40s and help to screen a large proportion of the population who would not attend a GP surgery.
Work with drug addicts is invariably a discreet activity, but of great value to a community. As well as supervised methadone programmes the existence of needle exchange schemes, commissioned by local authorities, helps keep our streets free of the dangers of discarded syringes.
Flu vaccinations became part of the pharmacy contract a couple of years ago too, and the uptake has grown hugely year on year as patients value the easy access and extended opening times of their community pharmacy.
But so much of this is delivered inconsistently across the country, creating a ‘postcode lottery’ of services available from pharmacy. Ultimately, it is this issue that has prevented us from redefining what community pharmacy is in the minds of the public and limited our ability to relieve pressure on other parts of the system.
There is so much more we could contribute with the right leadership from Government. Indeed the 2015 manifesto pledge to make 5,000 new GPs available to the public could be within grasp with the right policy choices.
How? Not through tax increases or funding squeezes elsewhere but through the intelligent, strategic deployment of community pharmacy to deal with common ailments, releasing doctors’ time to deal with those patients who need access to the unique skills and expertise that only they can provide.
And while pharmacy has certainly received supportive messages from the Labour and the Lib Dems in the past, its clear to me that this has been more for the political advantages of attacking a Government making difficult funding choices, rather than as genuine concern for a vital part of our health care system and local communities.
Theresa May’s intervention has begun to rebuild the relationship between community pharmacy and the Conservative Party. Now we must go on to demonstrate that we are the only party with the leadership, credibility, and vision required to define a new, more positive future for pharmacy – one that puts it in a position to solve some of the wider problems impacting on the NHS as a whole.