Pharmacies across South Hams have begun treating people for up to seven common conditions following the launch of a new scheme.

Under the Pharmacy First service, which came into effect on January 31, pharmacists in England can carry out certain consultations and administer antibiotics without the need for the patient to see their GP.

The aim is to give people more options on their healthcare and free up 10 million GP appointments a year across the country. The scheme follows the blood pressure checks and contraceptive pill services that were launched last year.

People will now able to get treatment for sinusitis, sore throat, earache, infected insect bite, impetigo, shingles and uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women under 65 without the need for an appointment or prescription.

Pharmacies will reportedly receive a fixed initial payment of £2,000 for providing the service, as well as £15 for each consultation. In addition, it is understood there will be a monthly fixed payment of £1,000 if pharmacies carry out a minimum number of consultations.

According to the NHS, more than 96 per cent of community pharmacies in the south west - almost 1,000 in total – will be offering this service.

Dr Kheelna Bavalia, medical director for primary care in the south west, welcomed the move, saying it will increase accessibility to healthcare for patients.

“We all live increasingly busy lives, and this gives people more options on how and where they access care,” she said.

David Lord, pharmacist at a Day Lewis pharmacy in Ivybridge, told this paper that the scheme will help GPs to focus on treating patients with potentially more serious conditions.

“Community pharmacists see these conditions virtually every day, and up until last week we had to refer them to the GP in the hope they could get an appointment. Quite often 90 per cent of the time they came back with a prescription that we would have wanted to give them in the first place,” said Mr Lord, who has been a pharmacist for 40 years.

He revealed that his team had held meetings with local GPs prior to the scheme’s launch to test the level of readiness among medical professionals.

He added that “one or two” pharmacists may not have previously used an otoscope (an instrument for testing the inner ear) but pointed out that it was possible to diagnose acute otitis media without necessarily using such an instrument.

“You can tell by professional questioning and you can diagnose a patient straightaway without a referral,” he said, adding that this was often the case when it involved very young children who were in pain and refused to have an otoscope in their ear canal.

Staffing concerns

Asked whether the scheme could lead to a heavier workload for chemists, Mr Lord said:

“Staff recruitment is very difficult, so it does put extra pressure on the pharmacy as a team. It’s getting the balance right to allow dispensing to continue, which is obviously a core business of community pharmacy, whilst the pharmacist is involved with these extended roles.”

Zhi Chua, area manager at a Wellbeing Pharmacy in Dartmouth - one of six in Devon - said his team were “eager” to carry out the service, but he also flagged up concerns about staffing levels.

“We have to find a balance. Some pharmacies are understaffed at the moment, so they’ll feel the extra hassle dealing with extra diagnosis time, but it depends on how well they’re preparing.”

Fears that the county’s pharmacies could come under increasing pressure were echoed in a report by Devon County Council last year.

Although the study was prompted by concerns over services in North and East Devon, it concluded that the county as a whole “needs more pharmacists and pharmaceutical technicians” due to population growth and people living longer.

It warned of a workforce crisis in the sector, due in part to Brexit, and that the vast majority of pharmacies were experiencing staff shortages across the country.

In the south west, there is a shortage of up to 500 pharmacists, along with a 14 per cent vacancy rate in community pharmacy compared to 8 per cent nationally.

According to a 2022 report by the Company Chemists' Association (CCA), 808 pharmacies closed permanently in England between 2015 and 2022. In that period, only 138 new pharmacies opened, representing a net loss of 670 community pharmacies.

More recently, LBC reported that since 2015 up to 1,055 pharmacies have closed, “which has exacerbated in recent months”.