Mads Mikkelsen reminds us of the crucial role pharmacies play in the healthcare system and considers the adaptations they will have to make to thrive post-pandemic in a world that demands more from its high street

Community pharmacies and their role in UK healthcare have probably never been more prominent in society than right now during the coronavirus crisis. As it stands, around 200 pharmacies are currently playing a vital role in the UK’s vaccination programme, allowing its roll out beyond GP surgeries and hospitals.

It’s clear then that pharmacies in the UK have the ability to relieve significant pressure off the NHS and allow it to extend its offering and capabilities. Despite this though, questions around pharmacies long-term future and purpose in healthcare remain.

Recently, LloydsPharmacy closed 99 branches in just over 12 months and furthermore an analysis of NHS data revealed if the current rate of closures continue there could be no pharmacies left in England by 2067. So, it is easy to see why doubts around their longevity remain.

Here, Mads Mikkelsen, chief executive and co-founder of travel health specialists Practio, discusses the crucial role pharmacies continue to play in the healthcare system and explores the adaptations they will have to make in order to thrive post-pandemic in a world that demands more from its high street.

Community pharmacies and their role

Earlier this year, Boris Johnson announced plans to vaccinate 15 million people in the top four priority groups by mid-February, with the ambitions met with critique. However, not only has the target been met, but data on the vaccine rollout in the UK shows it is also on course to vaccinate the whole of the adult population by the end of July.

Involving community pharmacies has allowed Britain to roll out the vaccine programme beyond GP surgeries and hospitals, allowing more jabs to be administered and make the whole process more convenient for those being vaccinated.

Community pharmacies have always played an important role in our local communities. They dispense medicines, advise patients on self-care and even treat patients for some minor illnesses, and stand to play an even greater role in the provision of frontline patient services.

Although some are more limited in the clinical services they can offer, since the NHS Long Term Plan was published in 2019 steps have been taken to ensure pharmacies provide the most extensive offerings possible and give patients more efficient access to the healthcare they need.

With the latest analysis of NHS data revealing more than 1,000 pharmacies have closed in England since the beginning of 2019, the overall trend relating to branch closures is bleak. The healthcare sector isn’t the only industry which has been hit hard by shifting attitudes towards the high street though, and in the last few months pharmacies have shown an impressive ability to adapt their services – something they must continue to do if they are to operate successfully in the years to come.

Not only has the inclusion of pharmacies in the COVID-19 vaccination programme reconnected them with their local community, it has also created a pathway for improved collaboration with the NHS. The momentum this has created must not be relinquished when the roll-out ends, instead it must be used as impetus for further change.

One of the key ways pharmacies can build on the success of the vaccination programme is by maximising the basic care they supply to patients. As qualified healthcare professionals pharmacists can offer clinical advice on a range of minor illnesses from common colds to skin rashes.

Unfortunately, many people aren’t aware of the extensive support they can provide or simply don’t know how to take advantage of this service. It is therefore crucial pharmacies not only ensure they are well equipped to offer this kind of care but also actively encourage people in their community to use them as a first point of contact. This would help to take a lot of pressure from increasingly stretched GP surgeries and hospitals while providing patients with improved and more convenient access to healthcare.

Although the UK may be leading the way in Europe for COVID-19 vaccination, when it comes to embracing technology within pharmacies it is lagging well behind. An estimated 30-40% of pharmacies in mainland Europe use automated dispensing, compared to less than 10% of those in the UK.

Automated dispensing systems are machines which manage the production and distribution of medicines enabling pharmacists to spend more time with patients. In recent years, they have become much more affordable and pharmacies in the UK must begin to recognise the value they can bring to their stores.

Not only will incorporating technology enable pharmacy teams to place a greater focus on the clinical services they provide, it will also allow branches to provide customers with a more bespoke offering. For example, pharmaceutical 3D printers can tailor prescriptions depending on how many pills an individual needs to take each day of the month.

While the vaccine roll-out has begun to reconnect pharmacies with their local communities, the emphasis is on them to further develop their services and re-emerge as the go-to place for basic clinical care. Should they embrace the opportunity they have been afforded, community pharmacies will have a bright future and play a vital role in supporting GP practices and NHS hospitals in the years to come.

Mads Mikkelsen is chief executive and co-founder of travel health specialists Practio