We must ensure that community pharmacists are recognised as self-care experts so that people turn to them as a first port of call, writes Bas Vorsteveld, VP & General Manager Great Britain and Ireland at Haleon and is President of PAGB.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen the aftermath of Covid-19, with the demand for consumer health products being unprecedented and unpredictable, placing pressure on supply chains and labour market. In turn, the industry has experienced acute shortages across the healthcare sector, placing huge pressure on pharmacists, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.
Europe has an estimated shortage of around 50,000 public-sector doctors, which is set to increase in the coming years. While this shortage stems from several complex problems, there is a hidden force that could play a key part in helping to alleviate this burden. That force is the potential of self-care.
Encouragingly, last month the UK government recognised the unique role that self-care can play through the introduction of its Delivery plan for recovering access to primary care. Through this, it has pledged to empower patients to manage their own health through several commitments, including improving accessibility to online tools and reclassifying medicines to make formerly prescribed options available over the counter.
This was a direct result of the recommendations made by the Self-Care Strategy Group of PAGB, who aim to embed self-care into primary care, of which Haleon is a member. Preceding the UK government’s announcement, Haleon also launched a whitepaper earlier this year. “Redefining the role of self-care in Europe” aims to reinforce the need for prevention and self-care within healthcare budgets.
The paper provides a vision for the future of self-care in Europe, demonstrating how it can offer significant health and economic benefits if implemented widely and effectively. With predictions that total savings could potentially amount to more than €54 billion on an annual basis for European healthcare, this is a solution that should be seriously considered.
Self-care is of course not a new concept. During the pandemic, the importance of self-care was highlighted when we were forced to consult online resources and preventative solutions to allow us to ‘stay at home.’ As a result, 1.2 billion cases of minor ailments currently continue to be self-managed in Europe.
Taking preventative measures can mean that health issues are treated at an earlier stage, and doctors visits are only required if symptoms worsen, easing the burden on health systems. Already, without self care, 120,000 extra GPs would be needed in Europe.
Yet, there is more that needs to be done to prevent self-care measures from becoming an underpromoted force in healthcare systems across the UK and Europe. For the UK, we must work with different segments of public service system to further embrace the idea of self-care as a remedy to the ongoing challenges our health service faces.
Expanding the role of pharmacists
So how do we set out such a solution? The first place we must look is at the role of pharmacists in the community. According to the PAGB, the number of people in the UK who use community pharmacists as their first step in getting advice on self-treatable conditions has fallen to 44%, down from 47% in 2021.
We must ensure that pharmacists are recognised as experts for self-care, so that people turn to them as a first port of call. As part of its Delivery Plan, the government will run a national campaign, to improve public understanding of the changes to primary care services, demonstrating to the public that there is a broader range of staff, such as pharmacists, in the practice team.
As part of an integrated approach to self-care, we also outline the recommendation of financial structures that should be created to support pharmacists in their advisory role to ensure that those who are already overburdened would be able to operate within an increased demand. In Scotland, for example, when people register at their community pharmacy for free advice, the government pays the pharmacist for their first time that the patient consults the pharmacist.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes in the government’s recent plan, is that a select few prescription-only medicines will become available to help treat seven common conditions, without the need to visit a GP later this year. Our White Paper identified that Over-the-Counter (OTC) medicines are already trusted by the majority of the population, with 81% of UK consumers feeling confident using OTC medicines.
We believe that supporting pharmacists to educate consumers on the benefits of OTC first and foremost will further increase this percentage and will encourage the remaining population to consider over-the-counter options too, helping them to maintain their health and preventing the need for more serious medicines where possible.
Self-care is not necessarily practiced in isolation, in fact expert advice is essential to initially educate people on how to take better care of their health and treat themselves. Community pharmacists are well placed to drive a holistic approach to self-care in the community. This includes recommending both the most suitable OTC treatments as well as self-care tips that can be implemented day to day.
Increasing health literacy and accessibility
Health education for consumers doesn’t just lie in an understanding of the advisory role of pharmacists. As it says in the name, ‘self-care’ is a form of healthcare that can be individual or understood and performed without any healthcare professionals. It’s clear that the capabilities to keep people informed through such an approach do exist. During the pandemic there was an increased focus on educating and empowering people to identify and manage minor ailments and make healthier choices. We must reignite this momentum and not lose it.
Concerningly though, our report found that 46% of the European population is not adequately health literate. Similarly, according to the PAGB, here in the UK 81% of the population believe we need more self-care education and 67% said that more reliable self-care information should be made available online. It is poor accessibility of reliable information that is prohibiting health literacy.
The government recognised in its Delivery Plan that access to online records and improving accessibility on booking platforms needs improvement. With the capacity to make these improvements, it is vital that we consider how technology can also be applied to health advice, understandable self-care tips straight to the patient, bypassing the need for an appointment with a professional. Technology has transformed the way in which people access information and poses a promising opportunity for self care moving forward.
Our report identified the need to provide clear and concise information so that people can find the best treatment for their ailments especially when time poor. The PAGB has found patients often feel overwhelmed by the amount of health information available online. We recognise the opportunity technology brings to the industry. Collaborating with Microsoft to expand their Seeing AI app’s functionality last year has helped blind or visually impaired people to read the product information on our packaging. We know that that inclusive access to healthcare is fundamental to address different needs, and deploying innovative technology can make this easier.
People must therefore be guided on how to find accurate information and digital resources that address trusted information, empowering them in practicing self-care . Simplifying OTC leaflets and signposting to standardised online symptom checkers will allow consumers to view trusted information quickly. We also recommend developing a fact-checking project at EU level to counter the risk of misinformation and provide certification for reliable sources. This will help people to feel more empowered and confident to act independently and if not, they can still seek advice from the relevant HCPs.
When it comes to education, real-world examples are key. When people can relate and identify to easily accessible facts, they’re more motivated to take better care of themselves and make better decisions. Self-care should be considered for inclusion in the national undergraduate curriculum and the professional training of HCPs. Alongside this, platforms for collaboration between different HCPs should be created so that their education and learning is continuous, and they feel confident in promoting self care practices throughout their career.
Self-care already plays an integral role in the healthcare systems across the whole of Europe and the government’s plans will hopefully see it amplified in the UK in the next two years. Ultimately, both healthcare professionals and the general population must be empowered to better understand and have the necessary support, advice, and products to implement self-care. As Haleon, together with PAGB we are calling for the 2020s to be the decade of self-care and we want to support and encourage this – by living up to our purpose and truly driving better everyday health.
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