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Edward Mountain: Along with the closure of rural bank branches and post offices in the Highlands, local pharmacists now under threat in large part due to burnout and workforce problems

By Ed Mountain

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MSP Edward Mountain.
MSP Edward Mountain.

In recent years, the Highlands has seen a reduction in local high street services, whether that is the closure of rural bank branches or post offices. Each closure has been a huge blow to our rural communities.

While it is true that more business can be done online these days, this is dependent on having a secure internet connection which, thanks to the SNP’s failure to deliver R100 on time, many still do not have. Some services though need to be in-person, such as community pharmacies.

Indeed, many will remember during the pandemic how community pharmacists were a lifeline and stepped in to provide many of the in-person services GPs weren’t always able to provide.

Whether it is the larger chains or the family-run business, community pharmacists are one of the cornerstones of our health service. We should be aiming to build upon what they can already deliver.

Ideally, I would like to see our community pharmacists play a greater role in the delivery of local health care, with pharmacists empowered to treat a wider range of common conditions, reducing pressures on local GPs for appointments.

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However, I am deeply concerned that this familiar fixture in our rural communities is now under threat due to a workforce crisis.

The pandemic has certainly had an impact with 89% of respondents to a Royal Pharmaceutical Society wellbeing survey answering that they were at high risk of burnout.

This alone is a huge challenge, but a longer-term recruitment shortage is compounding the problem.

I have been in contact with local community pharmacists who have warned that if this workforce crisis continues then some pharmacy outlets will either have to reduce opening hours or close altogether. This would be terrible news for our rural communities.

This crisis must be addressed and to do so we must understand how it arose in the first place.

It appears that the workforce challenges began after the new GP contract was introduced in 2018, in which it was agreed that NHS health boards would embed pharmacists within primary care teams. A good idea, but one which wasn’t without consequences for the wider pharmacy sector.

Indeed, the total number of pharmacists recruited by NHS across Scotland has rocketed upwards by 50% in the last five years. However, this uplift was not matched in the number of new trainees completing University courses.

This shortfall is now impacting the viability of our Community Pharmacists. The Scottish Government cannot ignore this issue any longer and it is clear that training places for pharmacists must be increased.

Our rural communities cannot afford to lose another vital service on the high street. Rest assured, I will continue to press the Scottish Government to support our local community pharmacists.

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