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See your local pharmacist.

12:00am | & Health

You go to visit your doctor, who gives you a prescription. Which pharmacy do you visit to collect your medicine?

The answer, for most people, is 'the one nearest to the doctor', but that is causing a growing problem for the Department of Health.

People naturally tend to go straight from their GP surgery to the nearest pharmacy, so it follows that pharmacies will compete to be the nearest. In many towns that means clusters of pharmacies have sprung up around busy GP practices and medical centres. Even smaller town's will have two, maybe three, pharmacies sited just a stone's throw from the local medical centre, all competing to catch people leaving the doctor clutching their prescriptions.

Meanwhile, other areas without medical centres or GP surgeries are left with few or no pharmacies, meaning many people who need to see a pharmacist for general advice or non-prescription medicines have to travel considerable distances. For people without access to private transport, or with mobility problems, this can be a real issue.

Increasingly the Government has urged people to consult pharmacists about minor ailments or health issues, to ease the pressure on doctors' surgerie. Pharmacists are highly trained and able to offer advice on a wide range of medical issues and appropriate treatments.

If necessary, they will advise people to see their doctor, but in many cases your local pharmacist can help – if you have a local pharmacist. Unfortunately many people do not, and a trip to the pharmacist is the same as a trip to the medical centre, since usually they are next door to each other.

The Department of Health in England says too many pharmacies are clustered together, leaving too many other areas without any pharmacy provision. Its figures show 40% are located in clusters of three or more within a 10-minute walk of each other.

Now the Department is proposing to cut NHS funding to these 'cluster' pharmacies and increase support to those already serving more isolated areas, or opening up in them. The policy is aimed at ensuring everyone has access to a community pharmacy.

Not surprisingly, most pharmacists are opposing the proposed cuts. The average community pharmacy receives about £220,000 in NHS funding each year. Between 80 and 90% of an average High Street pharmacy's funding comes from the NHS.

Industry body Pharmacy Voice says the government plans could mean the closure of up to 3,000 community pharmacies, but would be unlikely to result in new pharmacies in areas where there is currently no cover. Accepting that many pharmacies are in clusters, it says this is because they are in areas where the need is greatest.

So will the provision of pharmacies be more evenly spread in future? Only time will tell.

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