Will this service threaten Suffolk's pharmacies?
PUBLISHED: 20:00 05 February 2020 | UPDATED: 13:30 07 February 2020
Quick and convenient or a threat to local jobs and shops? We can't sit on the fence with online pharmacies
It came with the mail, I think: a leaflet promoting an easy way to get repeat-prescription medication delivered straight to our door. Or workplace. Or even our kindly neighbour. The online business suggested it might save the health service money, too, as "Pharmacy2U is paid less in NHS fees than an average high street pharmacy".
Folk can also get reminders when it's time to re-order. Brilliant, surely?
The leaflet named five doctors' surgeries using the NHS electronic prescription service, while pointing out "Your surgery has not given us any of your details for this letter and has not approved this communication".
That made me pause.
I was already wondering about the Amazonisation of Britain: goods are delivered cheaply and speedily but it can suck the retail vitality from our neighbourhoods.
My surgery was named. I looked at its website. A statement on the homepage said Pharmacy2U had nothing to do with the practice.
There was a link to a National Pharmacy Association page. It urged "Please support us to continue caring for you and your family by ignoring any correspondence from Pharmacy2U and obtaining your prescriptions... at your local NHS community pharmacy."
Among points it made were:
"In October 2015, Pharmacy2U was fined £130,000 for selling its patients' details to marketing companies including an Australian lottery.
"The Information Commissioner's Office subsequently found that this data was used by the marketing companies to deliberately target elderly and vulnerable patients."
"In February 2017, the Care Quality Commission inspected Pharmacy2U and found that it was 'not safe, effective or well led'. (We should point out that regulation of the firm's actual NHS prescription services did not fall within the CQC's remit.)
I'm not having a go at Pharmacy2U. If the management can run a safe and effective operation that makes customers happy, good for them.
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But what if the likes of Pharmacy2U take repeat-prescription trade from bricks-and-mortar chemists? Worst case scenario: some close.
That could leave some villages without a pharmacy (and they sell more than just medication). As with pubs, closure would remove another place where people encounter each other.
That interaction is invaluable. Sometimes, it's the only time in the day when a person has a conversation face to face.
It's not just independent pharmacies that could suffer. My surgery is a dispensing practice. Patients living more than a mile from a chemist can get their prescribed medicines from the surgery.
Might many on regular medication, living off the beaten track, find doorstep deliveries easier?
What they say
A spokesman for Pharmacy2U: "Digital transformation is essential to reducing the strain on the NHS and improving patient access to healthcare.
"We believe the way community pharmacies will be remunerated in the future will be far more about services, rather than the current system where it's based on pills dispensed.
"Our service dispenses repeat prescriptions, which are regular and require little interaction with pharmacists, and in this way we feel we can help free them up to play an enhanced role in helping and advising patients, so people can receive the full GP treatment in their local pharmacy.
"Regarding the additional questions on events reported in 2015, it is nearly five years ago, in which time Pharmacy2U has been through a company merger and has a completely different management team and personnel in place.
"In its most recent report for example, the Care Quality Commission described Pharmacy2U as safe, effective, caring, responsive and (with) well-led services."
The National Pharmacy Association argued "people still want a health care professional close at hand, especially when they are at a moment of transition in their illness and their treatment.
"The NHS also relies on local pharmacies to deliver a range of vital services and take pressure off GPs and hospitals.
"It is important people make their choice of where to obtain prescription medicines based on clear and accurate information. This includes being clear about the nature of the relationship of the online pharmacy with local GPs, which is a matter that can sometimes create confusion."
As customers, it seems choice and consequences are in our hands.