Interviewing Celesio boss Cormac Tobin is like encountering a force of nature. Ask a question, on any subject, and you’re hit by a whirlwind of analysis, anecdote and outspoken opinion. Twenty minutes later having hardly got a word in edgeways, you realise he’s just warming up.
However, Tobin is about much more than a rapid succession of quotable sound bites. Beneath the twinkling eyes and Irish blarney lies one of the sharpest business minds in the sector.
Tobin has brought direction and an exciting sense of the possible to all the businesses in the Celesio group, including AAH Pharmaceuticals, Evolution Homecare and Betterlife, as well as the UK’s second biggest pharmacy chain LloydsPharmacy.
Inevitably, conversation turns to the pharmacy cuts. He makes the point that the funding squeeze has hit the entire sector hard, no matter the size or ownership of the pharmacy business. LloydsPharmacy has certainly borne its share of the pain, and earnings across the Celesio group have taken a hit.
“Costs are up, prescription volumes are rising, we keep making efficiencies where we can. The danger for the sector is that this is becoming increasingly difficult to do without compromising patient safety,” he warns.
The cuts, which he calls “draconian and counter-productive”, not only threaten pharmacy’s future, but hit at the very heart of what makes the sector an integral part of the communities and people it serves. “I said at the time that the lack of consideration of the bigger picture and short-sighted manner in which the cuts were imposed left a bitter taste. There is no line of sight to enable us to run our businesses progressively and invest in the future.”
The new minister [Steve Brine] should commission a national minor ailments service as a matter of urgency, says Tobin. He should also study the Community Pharmacy Forward View, which shows the sector has ambition and a desire to shift the emphasis from volume-based dispensing to a more services-orientated offer.
Then there is also the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, now almost forgotten it seems, which found that pharmacies make more than 150 million interventions every year and offer excellent value for money. “We punch well above our weight in terms of the value of the services we provide. Just look at the success of the flu vaccination service.”
His message to the Government is characteristically blunt. Pharmacy has had enough of kind words, vague promises, all stick and no carrot. “It is time to put your money where your mouth is. You could argue that the health of the nation depends on it.”
“There’s still no clarity from the Government and this causes damaging uncertainty to a business like ours. Ministers need to listen to business.”
England’s pharmacy contract:
“Not fit for purpose – simple as that. The funding cuts and margin clawback are hurting us badly. It’s hard.”
Leadership in pharmacy:
“Missing in action. I was disappointed with the break-up of Pharmacy Voice, because it was providing the progressive leadership that the sector really requires. We need a fresh start and to pull together.”
Tobin may be at his most vocal when criticising the Government’s dealings with the sector but he is most passionate when describing his vision for community pharmacy in the future.
Technology is the key that will unlock community pharmacy’s potential, he believes. “It is about combining the speed and effectiveness of technology with human intimacy and understanding,” he said. “People want digital health solutions but they also need physical engagement. It is important that pharmacy builds products and services around that concept.”
Take hub and spoke. Lloyds-Pharmacy runs a successful prescription assembly operation, according to Tobin, based in Warrington and serving over 200 stores. Far from undermining pharmacists’ prized asset of accessible face-to-face contact with the public, it actually acts as an enabler.
“Our pharmacists are geniuses,” he says. “They are passionate, talented, committed and highly skilled people. The personalised care they provide in their communities is so valued. Hub and spoke is about making efficiencies, but the main purpose is to create the headspace so our pharmacists and their teams have more time to utilise their skills and talk to patients. “Our pharmacies dispense over 150 million prescription items a year and this figure is going up all the time. Something has to give.”
Amazonisation (“a horrible word”, says Tobin) is by no means the way forward for pharmacy – but “patientisation” most certainly is. He uses the term a lot. What does it mean?
“It is about making sure patients are at the centre of how we do things. Technology can help smooth over the friction points of the service we provide. A good example would be delivering someone’s medicines to their place of work – if that is most convenient for them – using our online doctor service, which recently passed a Care Quality Commission inspection with flying colours.”
In fact, he points out, the majority of people using the online service choose to collect their medicines from a pharmacy, maintaining that vital face-to-face pharmacist contact. “The important thing is that patients have a choice.”
Tobin sees Celesio expanding its blended digital/bricks-and-mortar offer, especially as the CQC noted the online service led to improved outcomes and reduced error rates.
“Our objective is for all our customers to get what they want where, when and how they need it – not how we perceive they need it.”
Celesio and LloydsPharmacy have reinvented themselves to a significant extent under Tobin’s high-octane leadership. Indeed, the company’s mantra is “reinventing health”.
The pharmacy chain has won plaudits for its care of dementia patients and is doing sector-leading work on patient safety with its Safercare initiative. The decision to buy Sainsbury’s 281 pharmacies was another signal of intent. The group has ambitious growth plans.
Despite the difficult economic and NHS environment, Tobin is optimistic about pharmacy’s future and sees opportunities ahead. But he warns: “The demands of patients and consumers are changing and the world is moving on. We can’t afford to be left behind.”
Educated: MBA Retail and Distribution, Stirling, BA Marketing and Design
First job: Floor sweeping in a supermarket
Dine out or eat in? Dine out
Beer or wine? Wine
Hobbies and interests: Gym, science fiction, walking, cinema, music
Town or country? Town
Printable vices: Certainly none that are printable!
Ireland or the UK? Europe
Quotable quotes (1): “The short-sighted manner in which the pharmacy cuts were imposed left a bitter taste”
Quotable quotes (2): “People want digital solutions but they also need physical engagement. Pharmacy must build its offer around that”
• This interview also appears in the September 2017 edition of Pharmacy Magazine.
People want digital solutions but they also need physical engagement