Senior pharmacist Neil Hamilton explains why a pharmacist is a great source of health advice and support – all without an appointment.  

Pulmonary hypertension is a condition best managed by experts in specialist centres, isn’t it? Yes, and no. I can’t praise the UK specialist centre network highly enough – it is the envy of the world for the quality of care provided for those living with PH.

However, even those patients with very advanced symptoms requiring inpatient stays are only in hospital for a fraction of their year. The rest of the time they are at home, often some distance from their PH centre, with their friends and family. It is during this time that being able to get good advice locally is vital.

I am sure that everyone will have, at some point, tried to get an urgent appointment to see a GP and struggled due to sheer demand.  In addition, however helpful your centre is, sometimes telephone advice is not the answer. I wonder how many of you have turned to your local pharmacist in this situation?

As well as your GP, district nurse or community matron, a pharmacist is another health expert you can turn to for advice and support – and the great thing is you don’t need an appointment. Pharmacists are highly-trained healthcare professionals who can answer questions about lots of health conditions.

If you have any questions about your medicines, you can walk into any local pharmacy and ask to see the pharmacist. Practically speaking, this is helpful because you don’t need an appointment; pharmacies are sometimes open outside of GP surgery hours –  for example at weekends or in the evening; and many pharmacies now have private consultation rooms.

As well as in large high street pharmacy chains (such as Boots and Lloyds), there are pharmacists in every independent chemist, supermarket pharmacy, and increasingly in GP surgeries – not to mention hospital pharmacies.

It may be that they haven’t come across much pulmonary hypertension before, but crucially all pharmacists will know where to look for advice and information regarding your very specific PH medication.  They will also be very familiar with all the other more commonly prescribed medicines you take for other conditions.

If you have any questions about your medicines, you can walk into any local pharmacy and ask to see the pharmacist. Practically speaking, this is helpful because you don’t need an appointment; pharmacies are sometimes open outside of GP surgery hours –  for example at weekends or in the evening; and many pharmacies now have private consultation rooms.

As well as getting information and reassurance from your pharmacist, some also offer free repeat prescription collection and delivery services.

Don’t just take my word for it – I am biased after all!  In the NHS Strategy document published last year, entitled ‘The Five Year Forward View’, NHS England Chief Executive Simon Stevens outlined how we need to “make far greater use of pharmacists: in prevention of ill health; support for healthy living; support to self-care for minor ailments and long term conditions medication review in care homes; and as part of more integrated local care models”.

Dr Jill Loader, Assistant Head of Primary Care Commissioning (Pharmacy) at NHS England also recognises their value, saying; “Pharmacists are highly qualified health care professionals, training for five years to become experts in medicines and in giving health and wellbeing advice.  They are often available during evenings and at weekends.  They give respected advice to many other health care professionals and for some patients they are the first port of call. However, many people are unaware of all the services a modern pharmacy can provide.”With all this in mind, this is my guide to getting the right support and advice when you decide to go to see your pharmacist.

In reading through this article, you may have already decided to go and have a talk to your local pharmacist.  Maybe you are still unsure how you could start the conversation, in which case here are a few suggestions for things you could find out:

  • What does this medicine do?
    • How will this medicine help?
    • How long will it take for the medicine to work?
    • How long will I need to use this medicine for?
    • How and when should I take this medicine?
    • Should I avoid any other medicines, drinks, foods or activities when I’m taking this medicine?
    • What should I do if the medicine doesn’t agree with me?
    • Can you check my inhaler technique?
    • How can I give up smoking?
    • What’s the best way to lose weight?

It’s important to be prepared. In order to provide good quality advice, your pharmacist may ask you a few questions about your symptoms to ensure you get the best possible advice. So it may be worth taking a few minutes to think about the following questions before you go:

In the past few weeks:

  • Have you been prescribed a new medicine that you don’t know much about?
  • Have you started something that you are worried is not suiting you?
  • Have you been given any advice about your medicines in the past?
  • Have you put on weight lately?  How much?  What is your usual ‘dry’ weight?
  • Have you had any change in symptoms recently (reduced exercise capacity, chest tightness or breathlessness)?
  • Has your breathlessness interfered with your usual activities (for example housework, leisure time, work)?
  • Have you felt dizzy or light-headed?
  • Do you keep a symptom diary?

To summarise, the pharmacist is under-used and under-valued by lots of the population. Taking advantage of the skills and services offered by your convenient local pharmacy is a part of the NHS plan for the coming years. 

Whilst telephone advice is always available between appointments at PH specialist centres, this is not always appropriate or the best way to deal with problems.

So next time you have a medicine-related query, or next time you collect a prescription, why not take the time to have a chat with the pharmacist there.

You’ll be glad you did – and you may even wonder why you hadn’t done so before!