The high street community pharmacy sector stands at a crossroads, but it’s a crossroads at which it has been hesitating for some time. The Royal Pharmaceutical Report entitled ‘Now or Never: Shaping Pharmacy for the Future’ was published in 2013 and argued the case for major reform to the sector. This report asserted that the changing landscape of the NHS meant community pharmacies had to do much more for patients against a backdrop of static or reduced public spending. This is a state of affairs which, if anything, has been exacerbated in the years since the report was published.
Figures gathered for a Verdict Retail survey released at the beginning of 2015 painted a picture of a sector which is in pretty good all round health, but in which the smaller independent operators are facing pressures from several different directions. The survey found that that UK pharmacy market had grown by 2.1% in 2014, the highest rate since 2010, and that much of this growth was driven by the over the counter (OTC) sector of the market, as opposed to prescriptions. It also found that many medicines were being reclassified, from POM (Prescription only Medicines) to P, which means they don’t require a prescription, but have to be dispensed under the supervision of a pharmacist, and from P to the General Sale List (GSL), which can be sold without supervision in general outlets. This helps to create a situation in which pharmacists are facing challenges to growth which could also, treated in the right manner, be regarded as opportunities.
Challenge: Competition from other retailers. The fact that many larger supermarkets now contain their own pharmacy department means that community pharmacists are facing the reality of people picking up their medicinal needs as part of the weekly shop.
Solution: Community pharmacists have to specialise and set themselves up as the first port of call for many people seeking medical help. This means offering services above and beyond the simple dispensing of medicine, and an environment much more conducive to consultations than the average supermarket. Moving in this direction will require investment in the infrastructure of the pharmacy itself and, probably, in training for members of staff.
Challenge: Alternative supply chains, such as the fact that it is possible to purchase medicines over the Internet.
Solution: Invest in automation and computer programmes which will allow tasks such as the dispensing of prescriptions to be handled automatically, freeing up members of staff to provide one to one interactions with patients. Forward thinking pharmacists will develop relationships with local GP surgeries, collecting prescriptions on patients’ behalf or having them sent electronically to the pharmacy, and then delivering directly to the patients. In many cases this will involve investing in either transportation or staff to handle deliveries and cover at the pharmacy. The investment will pay off by embedding the pharmacy securely as the third point in the ‘care triangle’ with the GP and patient.
Challenge: Flat or reduced funding from central government. Since 2010, the funding offered for dispensing prescriptions – which has traditionally made up the bulk of pharmacy income – has been frozen, a situation which doesn’t look set to change any time soon.
Solution: Become a chief player in prevention. Ambitious pharmacists, whilst underpinning prescription services in the manner outlined above, will shift further in the direction of general well-being and prevention, a shift much encouraged by central government. Develop, in customers, the habit of thinking of the pharmacy as the place to go to for walk in medical advice, tips on maintaining health and supplements, and over the counter items devoted to boosting fitness. This will require investment in both stock and marketing, but will help to reposition the community pharmacy for the challenges of the coming decades.