Pharmacists played a key role during COVID - now they deserve our support

A GROUND-breaking independent report has demonstrated the value of community pharmacy - and the need for fresh thinking.

As Chair of the All-Party Group on Community Pharmacy, I am very concerned about the future sustainability of our pharmacy network after reading the recent report 'Community Pharmacy Services in Northern Ireland 2020 and Beyond: Strengths and Pressures'.

The report, carried out by leading consultancy KPMG, cements in my mind the multi-faceted, often intangible benefits, community pharmacy brings to patients, local communities, and our wider society.

However, it also brings clarity to the rising cost-base for community pharmacy contractors and the need for an appropriate level of sustained central investment to underpin services.

As the only open-access health care provider in primary care during the COVID-19 pandemic, community pharmacy played a vital role, however like other sectors of health care, its workforce is left beleaguered from the challenge.

I believe it is essential for the Department to recognise this and put the necessary measures in place to allow our pharmacy network to move forward positively.

The pandemic brought into sharp focus the tremendous agility of our pharmacy network.

Despite unrelenting pressures, they stood strong, launching new services to support changing patient needs.

The numbers speak for themselves with over 75,000 COVID vaccines administered within 10 weeks, over 60,000 emergency supplies of medicines being made over an eight-month period and typically 150,000 vulnerable patients having medicines delivered each month.

It is important to learn from this as we carefully consider future health service models.

Fresh thinking is urgently required to move community pharmacy from the reserve list to occupy a seat front and centre within new health service structures.

For this a sea change in attitudes is needed.

Taking COVID vaccinations for example, everyone acknowledges the overall programme as a huge success, but many also ask why, as the only direct-access service provider at that time, community pharmacy was not included within the first phase of vaccination roll-out?

This was arguably a missed opportunity and one we must learn from.

A community pharmacy-centred vaccination service seems like the most sustainable, cost-effective solution for the health service moving forward.

This report shows that sustained investment and long-term planning is required to place the sector on a more secure footing.

I welcome the collaborative approaches during the pandemic period which led to Minister Swann securing additional short-term investments to sustain the sector.

Fundamentally, however, a long-term plan is required which aligns recurrent investment to the costs of providing services, ensuring stability and sustainability of the sector into the future.

Back in January when the idea of establishing an All-Party Group for Community Pharmacy was first mentioned it seemed an ideal moment for MLAs to take a more focused and collective approach to the issues facing community pharmacy.

This independent report by KPMG provides a clear context for future discussions.

Community pharmacy is the first point of contact with the health service for so many people in Northern Ireland.

This report underscores the sector's contribution to supporting patients during the last ten years, including through the biggest public health crisis in living memory.

The bottom line is that moving forward the community pharmacy network needs to be sufficiently resourced on a recurrent basis with its development underpinned by a long-term plan.

Our pandemic experience has taught us many important lessons and one of these is that we need a healthy, resilient community pharmacy sector to meet future challenges and shifting population dynamics.

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