Pharmacies could take on a greater role in dispensing care in our communities.

With mounting pressure on local GPs and, ultimately, the NHS, pharmacists are being encouraged to be the first port of call for people with minor ailments and complaints.

Who Do You Think We Are? – a paper published by Pharmacy Voice, comprising the three largest community pharmacy organisations, to mark the launch of a long-term campaign, Dispensing Health – addresses the results of YouGov research showing a lack of public understanding of the role community pharmacies can play in helping manage common ailments, and in helping people to live healthily.

Professor Robert Darracott, Pharmacy Voice chief executive, says: “Pharmacy is the third-largest health profession after medicine and nursing. Thirteen thousand community pharmacies in the UK act as a health hub on the high street, providing rapid access to a health professional.

“Yet people still don’t really know who we are and what we can do. We’re launching Dispensing Health to challenge the traditional views of community pharmacy as simply dispensers of medicine. We do so much more.”

Research by YouGov for Pharmacy Voice shows that less than half of the adult population – 48 per cent – know that the pharmacist in the heart of their community can advise on minor ailments, treatment for which is estimated to cost the NHS £2 billion every year. And less than one third – 31 per cent – are aware they can advise on living healthily.

Dispensing Health, due to run for two years, aims to drive better understanding of the role it can play in supporting public health.

It also asks the public, health professionals and all political parties to support its call that community pharmacy is seen as a dispenser of health, as well as of medicines; as a gateway for good health, while general practice is seen as a gateway for managing ill-health; that community pharmacy is included alongside general practice as a solution to the pressures on A&E; and that it is actively promoted as the first place to advise on and treat common ailments by May 2015.

Dr Michael Dixon, GP chairman of NHS Alliance and member of the national Self Care Forum, says: “We can no longer use the NHS like a sweet shop that’s open all hours. If we abuse it, we’ll lose it. Community pharmacy is perfectly positioned to take the strain from GPs and A&E departments that are bursting at the seams. We need to work together across the whole health service so that the public access the right services, in the right place and at the right time.”

Robbie Turner, chief executive officer, Community Pharmacy West Yorkshire, says in the past we tended to manage coughs, colds and sprains ourselves by seeking assistance from the local pharmacist, yet today we appear to have become more reliant on going to our local GP.

“I think there is a real opportunity for people to start to look after themselves in a better way and for them to start to use the NHS so that when they need more urgent care they can have the confidence they are able to access it,” he said.

“If we all start to do things a little bit differently the burden on the NHS would be reduced.

“The benefit we have got with pharmacies is that they’re still at the heart of people’s communities.

“You don’t need an appointment to see them, and by asking for advice you can be assured of getting high-quality advice quickly and effectively, and they are trained so if they cannot help you they can help you to know where to go next. It is almost like the gateway into the NHS.”

Dr Colin Renwick, clinical chairman of Airedale, Wharfedale and Craven Clinical Commissioning Group, says: “Pharmacies play a key role in delivering accessible healthcare in the community without the need for an appointment. They’re not simply a place to pick up medicines; they are happy to give advice on how to use them properly and possible side-effects.

“They can provide advice and treatment for minor ailments and help with many everyday conditions – and they will tell patients if they think they need to see a doctor. Their advice is free and many pharmacies also have a private area where patients can talk in confidence.

“It’s always important for patients to choose the most appropriate treatment for their illness so that emergency healthcare is easily accessible to those people who really need it.

“Pharmacists are healthcare professionals on the high street who provide expert advice and help keep people healthy and well informed about their health.”