By Imogen Robinson
In the past month, 11% of the public have seen their nearest pharmacy close, according to a survey of more than 2,000 adults in the UK.
Now, 70% of people do not consider themselves to be within walking distance of a pharmacy. Queues and waiting times are growing, and the same survey, commissioned by Pharmacy Outlet, reported that 39% of people now use search engines to diagnose or treat health issues, rather than visit a pharmacist, their GP, or hospital.
More than 10% of adults in the UK said their nearest pharmacy has shut in the past 12 months, or is due to close down in the near future, and, for 43% of these, travelling to their next nearest pharmacy will take them at least an extra 15 minutes.
As opposed to being resentful about being forced to self-diagnose, 50% of respondents said they wanted the government to embrace online tools and technologies and work with these, in order to alleviate the burden pharmacy closures are placing on GPs and NHS hospitals.
But why are pharmacies closing in the first place? And, until technology catches up with closures, as well as cuts to the NHS, what impact will these closures be having on the British public?
Why are pharmacies closing?
“From lack of demand, to the fall in government subsidies, the bottom line is that pharmacies are closing due to challenging market conditions,” says Hitesh Dodhia, superintendent pharamacist at pharmacyoutlet.co.uk. “In fact, even big brands such as LloydsPharmacy are citing money problems as the cause of them shutting down 190 pharmacies.”
Indeed, Hitesh continues that it was estimated in late 2017 that as many as 2,700 community pharmacies could be at risk of closure because they are financially unviable, according to an analysis of NHS data by PharmData. Funding cuts have eroded away at pharmacies’ operations, making it difficult for them to offer vital healthcare services to local communities.
Yet alternatives are already facing the strain. 14% of people are more reliant now on NHS hospitals and A&E departments when health issues arise. Ironically, in a bid to alleviate the strain currently being placed on the public healthcare system, the NHS recently advised parents to take their children to a local pharmacy instead.
“With A&E departments and NHS hospitals struggling to cope with demand, it would be great to see pharmacies play a more central role in providing health and care services – but as more and more local pharmacies close, this is no longer a viable solution for everyone,” says Hitesh.
Given that the vast majority of the British public will, at some point, need a pharmacy in close proximity to pick up a prescription, the effects of pharmacy closures on the nation’s health could be damaging. After all, pharmacies aren’t just there for dishing out drugs.
How will pharmacy closures impact the nation’s health?
“Pharmacies provide an essential service for members of the public looking for health advice, repeat prescriptions, check-ups, and medical treatments,” says Hitesh. “Acting as an essential primary points of care, pharmacists have the ability to diagnose minor health problems and address concerns at an early stage, in turn reducing the chances of people ending up in hospital or A&E departments.”
By cutting essential services like pharmacies, patients will have to travel further to receive care, which could be especially damaging for older people. For example, for those with repeat prescriptions, it may be harder for them to continue picking up their medication year round. The Pharmacy Outlet survey showed that 32% of UK adults had already missed picking up their repeat prescription.
If the pharmacies are going to be forced to close, then, what services will replace them? Is it too soon to look to digital technologies for healthcare, or are they already providing much needed assistance?
Are digital alternatives the answer?
Already, the Electronic Prescription Service (EPS) provides a much-needed solution to patients’ prescription needs, by allowing them to have repeat prescriptions delivered straight to their door, with no extra cost. Worryingly, however, 60% of people have never heard of the EPS, according to Pharmacy Outlet’s survey. Patients should also make sure they are registered with a GP to ensure that they do have access to vital healthcare services should they need them.
When it comes to online resources, Hitesh advices that, while they can be used to identify some symptoms, patients should always check with a medical professional to receive the appropriate treatment. “Ultimately, if online resources are solely relied upon to diagnose health problems, then patients can easily misdiagnose themselves or mistreat illness,” Hitesh says.
He adds that in coming months and years we will see online resources improve, however. Many organisations in the healthcare sector are taking services online, with video conferencing and live chat tools increasingly available as a means of connecting the UK public with medical professionals who can help assess their health issues.