It’s time we recognised the untapped potential of community pharmacies

Dr Alison Cook, Chair of the Taskforce for Lung Health, explains why the Taskforce's survey of over 2,000 people with lung conditions who use Community Pharmacies demonstrates the incredible potential of our local chemists to support people living with lung disease.

“[I value community pharmacies for] just "being there when I need them”

Survey Respondent

More than 1.6 million people visit a community pharmacy each day. We know that our local pharmacies are at the heart of our communities, and can offer a lifeline to people living with lung conditions when it comes getting access to treatment, advice and support. But we have never had insights into exactly how people with lung disease use these services. That’s why, last year, the Taskforce surveyed over 2,000 people with lung conditions who use Community Pharmacies. As a result, we have gleaned some crucial insights into how much community pharmacies currently support people living with lung conditions and of their untapped potential  

Community pharmacies can offer a wide range of services for people with lung disease. From ordering and collecting prescriptions to flu vaccinations, stop smoking services and inhaler technique checks, the potential of our local pharmacists to support people living with lung disease has never been clearer.

Local pharmacies are essential for those living with lung disease

“They [are] invaluable for two things: repeat prescriptions (they'd liaise with the GP and, in emergencies, could give emergency supplies!) and discussion of any and every condition, hugely useful and informative.”

Survey Respondent

People with lung conditions frequent their local pharmacies a lot. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly half (46%) of people responding to the Taskforce survey said that they used community pharmacy once a month, and 2 in 5 (38%) of people suggested they used it even more frequently than this.

What’s more, nearly all respondents (95%) stated that they had used one or more community pharmacy service that was either valuable and essential for them, or something they could not live without.

While it may be unsurprising that people with lung conditions value their local chemists, what was surprising is that there are still services that are not being used to their full potential, either due to a lack of knowledge about the service existing, or a lack of understanding about the potential benefits of the service.

For those who didn’t use some of the particular services available to them, the main reason they provided was that they believed they were not needed. But increasing access to these services could be a gamechanger. For example, nearly 80% of respondents received their flu vaccination elsewhere, such as at the GP. Making sure that people feel comfortable getting a flu jab at their local pharmacy, and are aware of the opportunity to do so, would improve efforts to deliver the flu jab to people with lung conditions across the country. This would make a huge difference to increasing the rollout of the flu jab to people with lung disease, who are seven times more likely to be die if they catch the flu than someone who is not in an at risk group.

Similarly, recycling/returning old medication received the highest number of respondents stating they were unaware that these services are available at community pharmacies. This means that people are not disposing of their medication safely, and are not aware that their medication can be recycled. In fact, over a third of respondents thought services for recycling/returning old medicine needed improvement. This may  have been in reference the making the service known as many people we’re not aware it was available..

Integration of pharmacies into the NHS is key for improving lung health care

At the moment, people coming into their local pharmacies presenting with symptoms of lung disease, or repeated problems with their existing lung condition, cannot be referred directly into NHS care. It’s clear that investing in the services offered by community pharmacies would better meet the needs of people with lung disease, and reduce the pressures faced by the NHS during the pandemic and beyond.

For instance, inhaler technique checks are a crucial part of basic care for people with lung disease but are so often missed or not carried out properly. But with 46% believing they don’t need this service, 38% receiving it elsewhere and 15% not aware it could be done at a community pharmacy, our survey results showed that there is a real opportunity to promote this service and improve its uptake among people with lung disease. We know missing out on inhaler technique checks can leave people at risk of life threatening asthma attacks, but if pharmacies were a part of the way the NHS delivers routine care, such issues could be tackled early on in our local communities.

Of course, there are challenges to integrating pharmacies. People are often more comfortable with going to their GP, and concerns about privacy are a problem, with one in five respondents identifying this as an issue for them. Some also feel that their condition is too specialist for a pharmacist, and a fifth prefer to use another service – such as their GP. Similarly, 16% stated they don’t like seeing a health care professional they don’t know and who doesn’t know their medical history. Making pharmacies an integral part of NHS care would help address these concerns as by recognising the importance of local chemists and giving pharmacists the resources to fully support people with lung conditions, we can actively increase confidence in these services.

Expansion of services is important to people with lung disease

A huge majority (86%) of people with lung conditions also told us that they felt there were more services that community pharmacies could offer. For example, just over half felt that help after an exacerbation or support managing an exacerbation would enable better management of their lung condition, and 52% stated that direct referral to their GP from the pharmacist when they needed more support would be helpful.

Access to diagnostics and monitoring tools also came out as important with 47% stating they would like access to lung function tests at their community pharmacy. The fact that people with lung conditions who use local pharmacies recognise the untapped potential for their own care is a clear sign that we can and should do more to utilise the skills of highly trained pharmacists across the country.

The impact of COVID-19

We know that the pandemic has had a huge impact across the board when it comes to accessing care. So, it was reassuring to see that over half of our survey respondents (58%) stated they still feel safe using community pharmacy in light of COVID-19. Despite this, feelings of anxiousness, nervousness or hesitancy were present for 65% of people taking the survey, and while the implementation of appropriate measures such as social distancing and hand washing was said to make them feel safe, these did not necessarily lessen feelings of anxiousness.

It’s therefore important that as we come out of the pandemic, confidence in our local pharmacies is restored, especially as COVID-19 has had the worst impact on the most disadvantaged communities across the country. Our results showed that people from poorer or disadvantaged backgrounds use community pharmacy more frequently and value community pharmacy services more than those who are more socioeconomically advantaged. Promisingly, 99% of these communities live within a 20-minute walk of a community pharmacy.

The reality is that people from poorer backgrounds are twice as likely to develop lung cancer or COPD which makes community pharmacies well placed to reduce health inequalities. Our local chemists are easily accessible and highly valuable to people who are disadvantaged. It’s increasingly clear that tapping into the potential that local pharmacies offer could go beyond supporting people with existing lung conditions, it could also work to alleviate health inequalities and help prevent people from developing lung disease in the first place.

Read the full survey results

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1 June 2021