As part of his role as minister for Brexit opportunities, in February Jacob Rees-Mogg called on members of the public to submit ideas on how the government could make the most of Brexit. In the months that followed, the Cabinet Office received more than 2,000 responses, before publishing the nine “most interesting” ones in the Express.
Among these was a suggestion to remove restrictions on experimental drug treatments, as well as allow healthcare professionals such as pharmacists and paramedics to qualify for their roles in three years.
Currently, pharmacists take five years to become fully qualified: to be registered with the regulatory body, they must complete a four-year MPharm course and one year of basic practical training.
Paramedics, on the other hand, need a qualification which can take up to four years.
Since April last year, pharmacists have been one of many medical professions on the government’s list of shortage professions, meaning preferential treatment is given to visa applications from foreign pharmacists.
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In England alone, the Company Chemists’ Association estimates that there is a shortage of around 3,000 pharmacists. Health Education England said the vacancy rate had doubled to 8% in the past four years.
As the NHS faces a backlog of more than six million patients, health service workforce shortages are only exacerbating the problem.
But shortening the time needed for new pharmacists to become qualified has been dismissed as a potential solution by health chiefs and the Department of Health.
A department spokesperson told the trade publication Chemist and Druggist last week that it had no plans to cut the pharmacy course by two years, noting that such a move would require the support of the regulator.
Taking over from his predecessor Matt Hancock, Health Secretary Sajid Javid sees the pharmacy as a largely untapped resource for primary care.
Speaking at an NHS conference on Thursday, Mr Javid said he would ‘start with pharmacy’ when it comes to upcoming health service reforms.
GPs have been accused of holding back patients who could be treated by a pharmacist in the past – the opposite of what the government is calling for, especially as the coronavirus pandemic has seen many surgeries shut down.
But, while pharmacists may be qualified to take on a bigger role in patient care, critics argue they need the funding and the numbers to do so.
This year will mark the start of a new course for pharmacists that consolidates all of their training into one, with the aim of giving trainees a more complete and practical understanding of medicine.
Mr Rudkin said: ‘To qualify as a pharmacist takes at least five years and this will remain the case once our new standards for initial education and training for pharmacists are fully implemented.
“The major changes we are making to pharmacist education and training will help ensure that future pharmacists have the clinical and consultation skills needed to deliver the safe and effective clinical services expected by patients and the NHS, and to work in integrated multi-professional teams across local health systems.
A spokesperson for the GPhC – which oversees the qualification and conduct of pharmacists – said it was aware of concerns that had been raised in the industry about pressures on the workforce, which it oversees.
However, they said it has no regulatory role in workforce planning.
A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘There are currently no plans to reduce the time needed to complete pharmacist training. We have made it clear that we want pharmacy to be better integrated with health and social care and to provide more clinical services in contact with patients closer to home.
“In addition to the £2.5 billion we spend annually in the sector, we are investing a further £15.9 million over the next four years to support the expansion of frontline pharmacy staff across primary and community care – to meet the needs of local patients and communities.”