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Editor’s view: Sector let down by Pharmacy First IT shambles

The start of Pharmacy First in England has been far from plain sailing. Urgent action is necessary to sort out myriad problems, writes Pharmacy Magazine editor Richard Thomas.

Community pharmacists and their teams in England should be applauded for hitting the ground running with Pharmacy First. However, they are being grievously let down by serious IT failures and poor messaging that risk dramatically derailing the entire service. 

The speed with which the pilot-free scheme was introduced was always going to cause implementation challenges but systems crashing, payment discrepancies, inappropriate or non-referrals by GPs and reports of patient aggression over eligibility criteria mean pharmacy teams are being placed under intolerable and unnecessary pressure.

The underpinning technology in particular is a shambles – full GP Connect access might be months away – and DHSC and system providers must move urgently to build more resilience into the IT infrastructure. Yes, this was a complex process, done in a hurry, involving multiple stakeholders – but contractors want reliability, not to be mired in helpdesk hell. The NHS, meanwhile, must make the marketing much clearer so patients understand exactly what’s on offer – and what isn’t.

The practicalities of delivering the service on the ground are posing plenty of problems too. Anecdotal reports from last month’s Sigma conference suggested that pharmacists may be taking 30 minutes or more on each consultation, many of which are not even reaching the gateway criteria for payment. The NPA admits from its polling that a significant proportion of pharmacists offering the service are finding it a struggle.

Early days, of course, and pharmacists will undoubtedly get better and quicker as they become more familiar with the service (a necessity if they are to hit the 30 consultations per month minimum threshold by October) but it is undoubtedly a steep learning curve for many. So check out our Pharmacy First Toolkits, the second of which, on acute sore throat, can be found online and with our March print edition, out now.

Toolkits for each condition will be distributed with Pharmacy Magazine over the coming months and also on – essential support for navigating this important yet problematic new service.

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