Community pharmacy would do well to heed the example of retail specialists, says Mukesh Lad.

Talking recently to newly qualified pharmacists, the despair for their chosen profession was apparent for all to see. After investing five years of their life in study and paying a small fortune in fees, they now feel totally undervalued and overwhelmingly unable to cope.

The group highlighted NHS England’s recent Stay Well this Winter TV campaign, aimed at increasing the use of the community pharmacist for advice. The intense pressure of dispensing volumes already demands total focus from pharmacists to ensure prescription accuracy isn’t compromised. The additional pressure from customers insisting on speaking to them following the TV promotion has raised genuine concern around their ability to provide a safe and reliable pharmaceutical service without exposing people to the risk of serious error.

So, instead of getting enjoyment from customer engagement and true job satisfaction from helping patients, newly qualified pharmacists are already feeling despondent and professionally abused not only by pharmacy owners but also by the NHS.

Low morale

And this conversation is now extending even further. Experienced independent pharmacists feel they have been providing NHS services not only free to the patient, but also free of charge to their NHS commissioners in the misguided hope they would eventually be commissioned in the future on a fairly funded basis. In reality, exactly the opposite has happened. Many services have been decommissioned, with pharmacy leaders and industry experts commenting on a community pharmacy service that is buckling under the pressure.

Yet when we peek over the garden wall into general practice, growth is flourishing thanks to the additional priority funding of £2.6bn from the government. It should therefore come as no surprise that morale is at an all-time low amongst pharmacy professionals.

We need to consider and learn from those retail specialists who spend millions of pounds on driving customer traffic to their stores and onto their websites. Take the example of John Lewis that spent in excess of £6m on advertising over Christmas 2017 just to drive customers through the door. Pharmacy, on the other hand, simply relied on a national advertising campaign to draw patients and customers to their door, funded by the NHS. 

There is an irony to this situation of advertising and promotion. High street retailers are incredibly envious of the level of information we have about our customers and patients. We know who they are, where they live, when they were born, the medical conditions that affect them and even when they’re next due to come into pharmacy for further business transactions. Unlike pharmacy, retailers see huge potential and opportunity in this information. For many pharmacies this database is rapidly expanding, thanks to the number of people living longer and the increase in multiple long-term conditions. It’s a market that’s increasing exponentially.

Since the launch of the Electronic Prescription Service (EPS), patients collect their prescriptions often without needing any input from the pharmacy. This is particularly apparent where clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) have decided to exclude pharmacies from the re-ordering process. EPS and the nominations process are now impacting hugely on pharmacy and its evolution. Many of the large multiples and those pharmacies backed by venture capital are using national marketing campaigns to secure nominations and therefore on-going NHS business.

No magic solutions

Despite all the challenges, there are opportunities for community pharmacy and the prosperity of the independent sector.

There aren’t any magic solutions. We need to review and re-think all our options. As the healthcare sector expands with an increasing population needing more medicines and healthcare services, the NHS cannot cope. So how do we convert to our own advantage, the customer traffic being directed to our pharmacies?

If the majority of these new customers are bowled over by the professional standard of our service, or if they feel valued and supported in their hour of need, or we offer, explain and nominate them for EPS, could we secure their future custom?

Out of 10 new customers each week, if we were to convert three into repeat business, that would mean 156 new customers a year. And if each new customer spends £5 in retail each month together with three NHS prescription items, you would be looking at additional revenue of nearly £50,000 a year. Add to this commissioned services such as flu vaccination, together with completely new services aligned to the needs of your local community – a travel or non-invasive cosmetic procedure clinic perhaps – and the potential for additional revenue for your business is huge.

It’s time for independents to think independently. Review the skill mix in your pharmacy team that put you in the best possible position to capture and retain new customers generated by the NHS advertising campaign. That level of national television promotion costs hundreds of thousands of pounds in media production and airtime costs – costs that for once, pharmacy hasn’t had to incur directly.

We also need to be following the example of other retailers and be ready to provide a greatly enhanced quality and choice of service in the future. We have been gifted an opportunity to increase footfall to our business, so let’s make sure we join the dots now to capitalise on this valuable free opportunity for pharmacy. 

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