Sore throat test for pharmacies gets mixed reaction

NHS England has announced a new walk-in “sore throat test and treat” pharmacy service to determine whether or not patients need to take antibiotics as one of eight health innovations set to join year two of the NHS Innovation Accelerator, a scheme designed to help with the adoption of promising new treatments and technologies. However, pharmacy organisations have voiced mixed opinions in response to the news.

Every year, 1.2 million people visit their GP with a sore throat, more than six in 10 of whom are prescribed antibiotics, even though just one in 10 suffers from a bacterial infection that will respond to the drugs.

The “sore throat test and treat” service, which was piloted for six months at 35 Boots pharmacies, uses a throat swab test to find out if symptoms are caused by a virus or bacterial infection and results are provided in five minutes. Patients suffering from a bacterial infection will be prescribed antibiotics by the pharmacist and not have to see a GP.

It is hoped that this service will go some way to relieving pressure on GP services, as well as helping in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

The Boots’ pilot scheme demonstrated that two-thirds of patients who would have seen their GP did not need to do so and if the scheme was rolled out nationwide, 800,000 GP appointments could be avoided. The scheme would also save the NHS around £34 million a year.

Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive, explained that the scheme will be rolled out across the country over the next year and commented: “Necessity is the mother of invention, and health care worldwide is now fizzing with smart innovation. In the NHS we’re now taking practical action to develop and fast track these new techniques into mainstream patient care.”

Pharmacy responds

The response from pharmacy industry bodies has been mixed, with many championing pharmacy’s potential, while also questioning the timing of the service amidst impending pharmacy cuts.

Ian Strachan, National Pharmacy Association chairman, said: “NHS England is bigging up this scheme as a way to reduce pressure on GPs, just weeks before massive cuts will hit pharmacies across the country and have exactly the opposite effect. There is a flat contradiction and a sad irony in what Simon Stevens is saying right now.

“Schemes such as this are just the tip of the iceberg of benefits pharmacies can deliver, but sustained investment in local pharmacies is needed to unlock that potential – not funding cuts that undermine it.   

“Local pharmacies should be the first port of call for the vast majority of health concerns, central to public health, the management of long-term conditions and urgent care.”

Pharmacy Voice CEO Rob Darracott commented: “The Government is currently in the process of undermining the pharmacy network through the imposition of funding cuts which sees many pharmacies considering the scope of the services they offer, their opening hours and their staffing. This welcome recognition of a community pharmacy extended service highlights the inconsistency of the NHS’s stated desire to integrate community pharmacy services into the health and care system with the policy and funding decisions being taken by the Treasury and Department of Health.

“We also need to be clear that, as far as we understand it, this is not an announcement of a new NHS service that is actually going to be available across the country at this stage. The National Innovation Accelerator (NIA) Programme provides an opportunity to explore and test how new, evidence-based interventions can be scaled-up and rolled out to provide greater patient benefit and improve health outcomes.

“If the NHS and Government are serious about working with the community pharmacy sector to develop and embed this type of initiative then we need partnerships not cuts. This services demonstrates that community pharmacy can be innovative and evidence-focused. Now is the time for the NHS and Government to move beyond soundbites and pilot projects, to make a firm commitment to both the public and community pharmacy teams that this is the kind of role they see them playing in future, and invest in it properly.”

Alastair Buxton, PSNC Director of NHS Services, said: “Whilst we welcome the news that NHS England has recognised community pharmacy as a key member of the primary care team that can help reduce pressure on GP practices, this announcement seems to run contrary to the [Department of Health] funding cut which is due to be implemented next month and will which will adversely affect the ability of pharmacies to provide patient care.

"It should also be noted that no central funding is being made available to commission this service and its adoption will be subject to local decisions made by CCGs.”

Cormac Tobin, managing director of Celesio UK, said: “This shows some joined up thinking; pharmacists are in an ideal position to conduct this type of service and the benefits are considerable in terms of taking pressure off GPs, not to mention the effect on antibiotic resistance. But these medium term cost savings to the NHS must be addressed through new money for pharmacy, not more tinkering with the global sum.

“The pharmacy profession is very used to doing more for less, and there are many other ways that pharmacy could and should be contributing... But it will happen if the government backs up its rhetoric with a proper – and properly funded – plan.”

Investing in innovation

The service is one of eight new health innovations set to join the NHS Innovation Accelerator this year. One of the other innovations included is EpSMon, an epilepsy self-management tool which enables patients to monitor their wellbeing and know when to seek medical support.

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