News and Comment

Pharmacies: a healthy dose of listening to users

Friday 23 January 2015


It’s a busy time for pharmacies. Many of us are turning to pharmacies for something to fight off seasonal sniffles, or to help with New Year’s resolutions, like losing weight or quitting smoking.

But it’s also an interesting time for the community pharmacy landscape in general, with debates currently underway about the future role of pharmacies and how they link to other health services.

The NHS Five Year Forward View called for the greater involvement of pharmacies in healthcare, including as part of new models of primary care. Pharmacy organisations have also been urging parties to sign up to their 2015 manifesto for a greater role for pharmacies, ahead of the general election.

Locally, many pharmacies are already offering services beyond just selling medicines and dispensing prescriptions – for example treating minor ailments, flu vaccinations, providing advice and support for healthy lifestyles, or advising users on how to best use new medicines.

However, in order to make sure new roles and services for pharmacies work on the ground and are taken up by the public, it’s also important to understand the needs, behaviours and attitudes of people using pharmacies.

Pharmaceutical Needs Assessments (PNAs) look into existing pharmacy provision in a local authority area, to assess how these are meeting the needs of the local population. All Health and Wellbeing Boards need to publish their local PNAs by March 31st 2015 and many local authorities have been putting out their draft PNAs to the local public for consultation.

Some local authorities have shown a strong commitment to understanding the experiences of pharmacy users in their areas, using innovative methods to directly engage them in the PNA consultation process. OPM were involved in this in the London boroughs of Camden and Islington, running focus groups with specific types of pharmacy users to inform these two boroughs’ PNAs, which recently went out to consultation (Islington here and Camden here).

Our approach enabled us to start with actual experiences and attitudes, hearing from local residents about what worked well, and not so well, in their local pharmacies. It also helped uncover the views of those with particular needs – such as long-term conditions, and mental health needs, who tend to rely heavily on their local pharmacy.

This helped to put the voices of pharmacy users back into the debate, with comments such as:

“It’s nice to be able to walk in and speak to someone.”

“I never have any fears about going to the chemist. They are nearly always polite and attentive, and the pharmacist is very helpful”

“I don’t really know comprehensively what they actually provide.”

In the focus groups, we heard that pharmacies in the two boroughs are generally well respected and trusted, but users also voiced some important pragmatic concerns about locations and opening hours, accessibility, and how particular services work. Some points raised closely match those also identified at the national level: some people were already happily using new pharmacy services, but awareness of the full range of services available was generally patchy. And many of these findings were also echoed in similar work OPM undertook last year directly engaging harder to reach groups about their pharmacy use for NHS England’s Call to Action on Pharmacies.

This kind of research underlines the importance of listening to users’ experiences, particularly disadvantaged ones or those with higher needs, when commissioning or reshaping pharmacy services.

PNAs needing to be fully revised every three years, and with more long-term changes to the pharmacy landscape afoot, it’s more important than ever that pharmacy users are heard and involved along the way. This is essential to ensure that any changes to pharmacy services will actually benefit all local users.