Shortage of Northern Ireland High Street pharmacists at 'crisis point'
Northern Ireland is short of 320 community pharmacists to provide a safe service, it has been warned.
Community pharmacists, who run Hgh Street chemists, have reported working up to 100 hours a week as chronic underfunding of the service drives it to crisis point.
A Department of Health scheme aimed at helping to reduce the strain on overworked GPs is also being blamed for pushing the community pharmacy service to breaking point.
About 400 pharmacists have left the service in the last two years - around 170 of them to take up posts working in GP practices as part of the practice-based pharmacist scheme.
Earlier this week, the Department of Health announced it will invest a further £2.19m to support the roll-out of the scheme, as part of an overall £26.7m package to help family doctors.
At the same time, however, community pharmacist fees have reduced by about 30% despite the fact their workload has increased by 40% over the past nine years.
Community Pharmacy NI (CPNI), the body that represents high street pharmacists, has launched a stinging attack on health officials for pressing ahead with its practice-based pharmacy scheme while community pharmacy plunges deeper into crisis.
While the pharmacists working in GP practices advise family doctors on the best treatment for patients, it is community pharmacists who actually dispense medication to the public.
Around 123,000 people, or 9% of the NI population, visit community pharmacists every day, according to the CPNI report.
This equates to 37 million visits each year, compared to 12 million visits to GP surgeries.
Gerard Greene, CPNI chief executive, said: "The findings in the CPNI workforce report are damning but what I find even more worrying is the Department's willingness to continue the roll-out of the practice-based pharmacist scheme when we have asked that it should be deferred until the community pharmacy workforce crisis is resolved.
"Obviously, any new money for the health service is good news and nearly £27m is a significant investment, but the department must urgently make the same investment in community pharmacy to stabilise the sector and to ensure that safe services can continue to be provided."
Mr Greene was speaking out as CPNI released the findings of its damning community pharmacy workforce survey.
It has revealed that 83% of community pharmacies have lost pharmacists in the last two years and 94% of contractors have experienced difficulty finding a locum.
The situation is so bad that high street pharmacists are having to close their pharmacies just to attend vital medical appointments when they are unwell.
Mr Greene continued: "There was a pharmacist who had a shoulder injury and they needed surgery, which was followed by a period of convalescence.
"He was told by doctors to take a couple of weeks off work to rest after the operation but because he couldn't find a pharmacist to cover him, he was only able to take three days off.
"There was another pharmacist who needed surgery to their scalp and they actually had to discharge themselves from hospital the day after the operation, against their doctor's advice, to go to work because they couldn't find a locum pharmacist.
"They were at work, dispensing medication, while still experiencing the effects of the procedure the day before, and having to wear a scarf to cover the wound on their head.
"We have been warning the Department of Health for years that this situation is getting out of control but they have failed to recognise there's a problem - they're in denial.
"We have released the findings of this survey to try and demonstrate that the department must act now as community pharmacists are already struggling to deliver a safe service."
The Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment.