A Fermanagh based pharmacist has spoken of his fear that the service here will become “unsafe” for him and his staff if workforce and funding pressures are not addressed.

Joe McAleer, a pharmacist based in Enniskillen, called on the Department of Health to act immediately, saying: “If the Department does not invest properly in community-based services, then we won’t achieve the much needed transformation in healthcare”.

“We understand there is pressure right across the health and social care sector, however community pharmacy is essential in reducing the need for unnecessary visits to GP practices, out-of-hours services and hospitals.

“We are a front-line service and people rely on us for immediate and accessible advice in their local areas.

“We know that the Department is aware of the pressures that are mounting and it is now time the Department acted to reverse the huge damage that is being done to our network,” he said.

A survey of community pharmacists in Northern Ireland has identified a huge shortfall in their numbers and real concerns about the ability to maintain safe services for patients.

Serious underfunding and a lack of workforce planning by the Department of Health has directly impacted on the sector and is now threatening the safe delivery of crucial frontline services for patients, the representative body has said.

In the largest survey undertaken by Community Pharmacy NI, the professional membership body for all community pharmacies, in May and June this year, responses were received from over 77 per cent of community pharmacies in Northern Ireland, including in Fermanagh, representing 409 pharmacies out of a total of 532.

“Community pharmacy should feature heavily in the transformation of health and social care that we are told is urgently needed in Northern Ireland for our health service to be sustainable,” Mr. McAleer.

“Community pharmacists are ready and willing to throw our weight behind the transformation, but to do so we require proper funding and resources,” he said.

The Department of Health is in the process of carrying out its own workforce review of the entire pharmacy profession in Northern Ireland and initial findings indicate that the situation is significantly worse in the community pharmacy sector compared to Trust and GP sectors.

The survey results highlight that:

• It is estimated that almost 400 pharmacists have left the network in the past two years

• The NI community pharmacy network is now operating with an estimated deficit of 320 pharmacists

• 94 per cent of contractors report difficulties sourcing locums

• 44 per cent of pharmacists who left in the last two years have left to work in GP practices

• 83 per cent of community pharmacies have lost pharmacists

• 70 per cent of contractors have been unable to fill advertised workforce roles

• 90 per cent of contractors are either very or extremely worried about their future workforce

Last week the Department announced an investment of £26.76 million in Northern Ireland’s GP services for 2019/20.

But community pharmacists, such as Mr. McAleer, say they are “shocked” that £2.19 million will be made available this year to continue the roll-out of the Practice Based Pharmacist scheme.

“This will exacerbate the community pharmacy workforce crisis,” he said.