Core Belief: ‘Change is inevitable and necessary’

08 Aug 2017

'Pharmacies must be progressive and modern, while at the same time being true to the historic values of pharmacy as a personal, caring profession. In particular, the sector must work to optimise the use of technology to strengthen pharmacy’s locally based service proposition.'

Mike Hewitson is an independent pharmacy contractor for Beaminster Pharmacy, West Dorset and sits on the board for the NPA and PSNC. Mike has contributed to a number of pharmacy publications including Chemist+Druggist and Pharmacy Magazine, and has acted as a spokesperson for the NPA on many occasions for media channels in the UK, including BBC, Guardian, Independent on Sunday and The Observer.

Given that we find ourselves in stormy waters with funding cuts and numerous other threats on the horizon, it is natural to want to park up in a safe harbour and wait out the storm, but if we are all not careful, we could end up trapped and at risk of sinking. Change is not only inevitable, it is healthy and an essential part of any successful business. The Government reform programme in my view is exactly the wrong type of change, delivered in the worst possible way, but if we don’t like the path they are laying out for us, we must aim to progress along a different path, not seek to stand still.

Customer service expectations now are in a completely different place than they were 15 years ago, not only do people want a fast and efficient service, but they also want to access it when and how they choose to. For some this will mean longer opening hours, for others it will mean technological solutions and use of the dread word digital. This term is often used to describe a whole raft of different things from websites, apps, right the way through to new health technology. Whatever the technology, for me digital is about providing a new front door for the traditional pharmacy, a virtual front door which patients and customers can chose to walk through when they want to.

Although the march of pure internet pharmacy has been slow in the UK, there are signs that the colossal investment by venture capital firms in the largest internet pharmacy in the UK is starting to have an impact on patient behaviours. Amazon too has just hired a superintendent pharmacist to examine whether it can make pharmacy work with its business model in the UK – if they can’t make it work, nobody can. Personally I don’t think they will make it work because of the low value, high frequency nature of the NHS pharmacy business, and the demographics of current service users, but that will change as millennials (sorry hate the term) start to develop long term conditions.

A typical community pharmacy is more than capable of competing on this front. Remember the two drivers of internet commerce have generally been price and convenience. Price isn’t a factor for NHS business, and arguably internet services are much less convenient, particular for acute conditions than the local pharmacy who will be able to help you on demand. More often than not people want information and advice (from someone they trust, not just a nameless and unaccountable page on the internet), we’ve all been used to doing this as part of the day job since forever if you think about the number of phone calls your pharmacy handles in a day. Perhaps we need to open a number of new communications channels. You should certainly be  talking to customers via social media, as that’s where the customers of tomorrow are. This isn’t difficult to do, and will become second nature after a short while.

Nobody could have missed how much the NHS is struggling right now. Two to three weeks in some areas to be able to see a GP. Weeks of waiting for diagnostic tests…Those same customer service demands that we face will become a relentless wave of pressure for the NHS and politicians, but in the short to medium term, one option is to look at private services like online doctor services and Patient Group Directions to fill the gap left by the state. Flu is another example where pharmacy is stepping in to the space that GPs are struggling to fill – every patient I talk to says they prefer to get their flu jab in a pharmacy because they can do it when they want toThese are not difficult services to offer, but we need to get better at offering them. Many colleagues are now running high quality travel clinic services which are bringing in significant revenue, and making up for some of the shortfall in NHS receipts. They have adapted and reduced their reliance on the NHS.

I hope when the current wave of interest in GP practice pharmacists dies down, that we start to see a long term vision for the development of the community pharmacy service. Canada has gone the furthest down this route, and is seeing real benefits not only to costs, but also to the care of patients with long term conditions. There is a real partnership approach there which has seen all pharmacists able to declare themselves competent to prescribe medicines for their patients.

We cannot wait for the Government to catch up, every community pharmacist needs to be pushing boundaries, leading change in their own businesses and making their customer experience the best it possibly can be. Change is nothing to be scared of, it is exciting and empowering, but we need to demonstrate the right type of change, it is only though pace and scale that we will show the folly of the Government’s thinking about the model. We have to make community pharmacies easier for patients to deal with, no doubt, but there are already a range of tools available to give you access to new customers and new channels. Don’t wait for permission, get out there and be the change.

Author: Mike Hewitson, NPA Board Member, South