Harriet Adcock: Pharmacist bashing – it’s just not cricket

Harriet Adcock The bad press heaped on pharmacists this week no doubt raised a few smiles among BMJ readers. But doctors should remember that pharmacists are easy targets for consumer watchdog Which?, whose survey found that more than a third of pharmacies give unsatisfactory advice. One of the things that makes pharmacists so valuable as a healthcare resource – their accessibility – also makes them an easy subject for headline-grabbing research.

As well as finding that some pharmacists gave bad advice (I expect some doctors do too), the Which? survey also found improvements in the use of private consultation areas in pharmacies, the supply of emergency hormonal contraception and medicines use reviews, something that was not widely picked up on in media reports of the research. These aspects of pharmaceutical care should be not be underestimated by the wider healthcare community. Every person who is helped to understand what their medicines are for and how they should be taken is, potentially, one less person wanting a slice of their GPs’ valuable time or knocking on the door of their local A&E department.

A criticism sometimes directed towards community pharmacists – that they are businessmen or women ahead of healthcare professionals – is unfair and, for the most part, completely off the mark. Pharmacists, like doctors, are in the business of helping people improve their health. In my job, I come across countless examples of pharmacies providing much needed, value-added healthcare interventions – from anticoagulation and diabetes clinics to sexual health and vascular screening services. Indeed, one of Which?’s own researchers had her insulin-dependent diabetes diagnosed after being screened at her local Lloydspharmacy. Of course, good news doesn’t make the front page. So pharmacists tend only to experience the spotlight when things go wrong.

Perhaps the answer lies in co-operation. A report this week by the Healthcare Commission on urgent and emergency care services in England called for better integration between service providers. One of the things the commission looked at was the arrangements put in place by GPs’ out of hours services to help patients access medicines they urgently need. It also looked at how services ensure that the range of drugs available meets local needs and reflects good prescribing practice. Only 29 % of the areas looked at by the commission scored well in these respects. The remainder need to improve local policies and practices to ensure that they comply with national guidance. Perhaps pharmacy can help.

In my line of work, the GPs I come across have, by and large, already got a good relationship with their local pharmacist. So I’m usually preaching to the converted. But I suspect there are many GPs who rarely, if ever, speak to the local “scientist on the high street”. Why not set up a meeting to explore common ground? Working together for the benefit of your patients must surely be the goal.

Harriet Adcock is news editor of The Pharmaceutical Journal