Pharmacists 'should help ease GP pressure'
An "army" of pharmacists should step in to help treat patients at GP practices across England, according to plans by leading health professionals.
The proposals focus on pharmacists seeing patients with common ailments directly - not on setting up shops within surgeries.
Pharmacists would provide health advice and be able to prescribe medication once extra training had been completed.
Charities welcomed the move but say patient safety must be a priority.
NHS England officials said the idea complemented their plan to increase staffing in GP surgeries. But it is not yet clear whether they will push the proposals forward.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham told the BBC there was a risk this could be "medicine on the cheap", with patients sent to a pharmacist when they really needed to see a GP.
The plans, aimed at every practice in England, have been put forward by the Royal College of General Practice (RCGP) and Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS).
It could mean when patients call up their surgeries they are offered an appointment with a pharmacist, general practitioner or practice nurse.
Those who opt to see the pharmacist could get advice about their symptoms and discuss troubling side-effects of medication, as well as getting help with their repeat prescriptions.
People with long-term conditions are likely to benefit the most under the plans - those on multiple medications could get help streamlining their daily drugs.
In a handful of practices pharmacists already help with the management of conditions such as diabetes and asthma, for example, helping patients get annual checks.
Under the proposals more practices could do this.
And with additional training some pharmacists would prescribe commonly used medicines such as antibiotics.
Any patient who still needed advice from a doctor could still be seen by their GP.
GP and pharmacist leaders say the move is needed as practices face staff shortages and are struggling to meet the demands of an ageing population.
The RCGP predicts that on some 67 million occasions this year, patients will have to wait more than one week to get an appointment.
In contrast, there is currently an over-supply of skilled pharmacists who could ease this burden, experts argue.
Initial pharmacist training lasts one year longer than basic nursing qualifications and one year less than medical school for doctors.
Dr Maureen Baker, chairwoman of the RCGP, said: "Even if we were to get an urgent influx of extra funding and more GPs, we could not turn around the situation overnight due to the length of time it takes to train a GP.
"Yet we already have a 'hidden army' of highly-trained pharmacists who could provide a solution.
"This isn't about having a pharmacy premises within a surgery, but about making full use of the pharmacist's clinical skills to help patients and the over-stretched GP workforce."
David Branford, of the RPS, said: "Pharmacists can consult with and treat patients directly, relieving GPs of casework and enabling them to focus their skills where they are most needed, for example on diagnosing and treating patients with complex conditions.
"Pharmacists can advise other professionals about medicines, resolve problems with prescriptions and reduce prescribing errors."
These types of partnership already exist in a handful of practices but experts hope the plan will eventually be rolled out across the UK.
Katherine Murphy, of the Patients Association said: "Any action that can, at the very least, ease the problem is to be welcomed and this plan for doctors and pharmacists to work together is an innovative step in the right direction.
"Of course, there must always be concerns that the pharmacists who undertake this work have the relevant skills and qualifications to treat patients, and with care."
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham told the BBC: "I think it is a good idea. There is certainly more pharmacists can do to take the pressure off GPs.
"My worry is that people would be passed over to a pharmacist when in fact they needed to see a doctor.
"That would need to be very carefully set out in any rules and guidance that is issued."