The primary care access plan is finally here. A comprehensive plan to mull over but difficult to have a full view in the absence of the workforce plan. It is coined by DHSC as “the first step to address the access challenge ahead of longer-term reforms”, but this is not to undersell its transformative potential. Primary Care Networks (PCNs) are now fully focused on delivering this plan which spans the introduction of better phone and online systems, pharmacies supplying medicines for more conditions, and more staff and more appointments – anything else will be deprioritised.
The plan has been widely praised as championing innovation. However, there is a feeling that the plan doesn’t duly assess the risks and benefits of what has been put forward and ─ is perhaps an oversimplification from DHSC and NHSE.
On a micro level, in this blog we explore the potential impact on access of changes to the role of pharmacy, the Investment and Impact Fund (IIF) and Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF).
Broadening the role of pharmacists presents both opportunities and risks
Pharmacy First has arguably elicited the strongest discourse and feelings both good and bad. Outwardly, a number of high-profile pharmacy leads are supportive of the initiative but there is cautiousness amongst the health sector. In conversation with David Thorne, Transformation Director at Well Up North PCN, he noted the following challenges:
1. Interoperability: It is vital that GP and pharmacy systems speak to each other, and we avoid the fragmentation that has bedevilled GP systems to date. Currently, robust systems are not in place to inform pharmacists of what medication someone is on to support their prescribing decisions ─ apart from placing faith in very early use of the NHS App. We need consistency and safe links, especially when looking to enable people to use a pharmacy distant from their GP practice.
2. Pharmacy closures: In theory, the enhanced role of pharmacists could make primary care more accessible. However, data reports that pharmacy closures have disproportionally been in the most deprived areas of England ─ so there is a risk that positive changes to the role of pharmacists’ conflict with national priorities around health inequalities. One of the main drivers of the shortages of community pharmacists is the PCN recruitment of pharmacists to work in primary care roles.
3. Right Place, Right Role: Community Pharmacies may not be able to develop responsive clinical governance systems that adequately respond to case mix escalation, for example when superficially routine consultations escalate to issues of drug/alcohol misuse, mental health and safeguarding. How can we support pharmacists to develop the skill, time and governance systems to manage the types of conversations that GPs have? Extensive training and public awareness will need to accompany these changes.
This is far from a done deal with negotiations on the £645 million supportive investment ongoing. Further, there will be a consultation on upholding patient safety considering greater prescribing powers for pharmacists.
Polling results conducted by WA communications in March 2023 of 1,000 members of the UK public highlight that whilst there is public support for a greater role for pharmacists, there is some way to go to building public awareness of the services pharmacists can provide.
- 51% of the public are confident that their local pharmacist could provide them with high-quality medical advice for a minor health condition.
- The public are more likely to turn to pharmacists (39%) first for a minor health concern, than GPs (33%) or NHS 111 (14%). This is particularly the case for women (46%) and those aged over 55 (54%).
A word of caution surrounding progressive changes to the IIF and QOF
Further details of the streamlining of IIF and QOF were announced within the plan. Redirecting £246 million of IIF funds represents a major shift with 30% to be awarded by ICBs (integrated care board), conditional on PCNs achieving agreed improvement in access and patient experience. DHSC/NHSE guidance is that access improvement plans should prioritise supporting those with the lowest patient satisfaction scores.
Local flexibility must be at the heart of the re-design of incentives, without arbitrary access quotas for certain groups such as ethnic minorities or LGBTQ+, which could lead to under-funding and deepening inequalities. It seems that DHSC/NHSE are cognisant of this, explaining that the plan is designed to move towards a “more equitable approach that will benefit all patients” and “does not call out specific cohort of patients” for that reason. This must be pulled through at an incentive level to ensure certain PCNs such as rural PCNs who may have small numbers of certain communities, are not caught out.
NHSE further announced that, through a consultation this summer, they will explore how to link QOF to key strategies such as the upcoming Major Conditions Strategy. Ultimately, ICBs new commissioning powers will mean ICBs very closely performance manage PCNs. This goes against the ‘neighbourhood’ aspect of integrated care reforms, which will only seek to become more complex as preventative care models are adopted.
As always, implementation will be the true test. The plan comes with no standardisation frameworks or action plans attached. This passes the buck to PCNs and/or ICBs to operationalise, which risks fragmentation in the absence of nationally led advice.