New figures have revealed the critical role that pharmacies and GP Practices have played in supporting the NHS during the busiest period in its history.
With the health service experiencing record demand in recent weeks, thousands of people across North Wales have turned to their local pharmacy to access care - often for the first time.
Meanwhile, GP Practices, which were already providing more patient consultations than ever before, have also reported a significant additional spike in demand.
NHS leaders have thanked the North Wales public for playing their part by choosing the most appropriate ways to access care, protecting a health service which has been at ‘breaking point’ in recent weeks.
Community pharmacies in North Wales reported a 345 per cent increase in the number of people seeking emergency medicines during December 2022, compared to the same period in 2021, with 3,229 consultations carried out.
Consultations under the community pharmacy Common Ailments Service also increased by 177 per cent during the same period, with 6,278 benefitting from the scheme, which offers free advice and treatment for common ailments that cannot be managed by self-care, avoiding the need for a GP appointment.
Meanwhile, the number of consultations carried out under the Independent Prescribing Service increased by 300 per cent, with 1,799 people supported. The service, available in an ever-growing number of community pharmacies, enables people to receive an assessment and prescribed medication for minor illnesses – usually the same day, often without the need for an appointment.
The record demand on health services was so great that it led to a UK wide shortage of antibiotics, although stock levels have now improved.
Pharmacist Llyr Hughes, of Fferyllwyr Llŷn Cyf, in Gwynedd, says that the last few weeks have been the busiest in living memory for those working in community pharmacy.
“There’s a growing appreciation amongst the public of the high quality services that community pharmacies can deliver, as evidenced by these statistics,” he explained.
“This is freeing up capacity in the health service from people who would otherwise have called their GP or even ended up attending the Emergency Department.
“Betsi Health Board has been some of the trailblazers for developing and expanding the acute services offered in community pharmacies and we know this is making a difference to the NHS during this very challenging time.
“Community pharmacy colleagues have been working at maximum capacity and while it has been exhausting, it is also very rewarding as we know that patients really value the service we provide.”
GP Practices across the region have also played their part in meeting a record demand for care. Statistics from the British Medical Association reveal that more patients are being seen in General Practice than at any time before the COVID pandemic, despite declining GP numbers, rising demand, and struggles to recruit and retain staff.
Dr Sara Bodey, a GP Partner at Bryn Darland Surgery, Coedpoeth, and Chair of the North Wales Local Medical Committee of General Practitioners, said:
“Many GP Practices saw a threefold increase in the number of urgent same day requests from patients in December, but even before this, UK wide data suggested general practice was working at 20 per cent increased activity.
“It’s demoralising to see comments from the public criticising GPs, because we’re supporting more patients than ever before and colleagues are going above and beyond.
“Recent weeks have probably been the worst in my 19 years of working as a GP in terms of pressure and workload and the general practice workforce is beyond exhausted.
We still love what we do - that’s why we’re still here and haven’t left, but it is becoming harder to maintain this enthusiasm in the face of the unrelenting pressures.”
Karen Higgins, BCUHB’s Director of Primary Care, has paid tribute to primary care staff for their tireless work, while thanking the North Wales public for their ongoing support.
“This remains an exceptionally challenging time for colleagues across our health services, particularly in primary care,” she said.
“We’re hugely grateful for the continued efforts being made by staff in pharmacies and GP surgeries in such difficult circumstances.
“We also owe a huge debt of gratitude to the North Wales public for choosing the most appropriate NHS services during this very challenging period.
“In particular, its very pleasing that more people with minor illnesses or conditions are taking advantage of the free, expert advice provided at their local community pharmacy, which can usually be accessed more quickly than other services.
“This has helped to reduce unnecessary attendances at our Emergency Departments, which have been at breaking point at times in recent weeks.
“We are urging members of the public who need help to visit the NHS Wales 111 Website in the first instance to be advised about the most appropriate service, which might be self-care at home, a visit to the pharmacy, a GP appointment, a Minor Injuries Unit, or, in life threatening circumstances, the hospital Emergency Department.”
For further information on local health services, please visit the BCUHB website.