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Pharmacists ‘should refer patients for cancer tests’

Pharmacists should be given a much larger role in preventing disease, referring suspected cancer patients for diagnostic tests and offering a ‘polypill’ to prevent cardiovascular disease, public health experts have advised.

The move was made at a seminar attended by health minister Earl Howe, with several prominent academics recommending that pharmacies were an ‘ideal portal’ for hard-to-reach patients to access tests and preventative medication.

The recommendations come after pharmacy leaders came under fire for an access scheme that involved giving patients access to antibiotics and salbutamol inhalers without a prescription.

Professor Richard Parish, chief executive of the Royal Society of Public Health said pharmacists came in contact with a large number of patients – particularly men – who are traditionally reluctant to visit a doctor – and could persuade them to go for tests if they have symptoms of cancer.

He said: ‘If you’ve got someone coughing up blood coming in for five weeks running, rather than just saying: “You need to see your GP”, direct referrals into early diagnosis creates potential for early detection and referral.’

Professor Sir Nicholas Wald, director at the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine, also said that pharmacies should be able to hand out preventative medication at the UCL School of Pharmacy seminar.

He suggested that a combination pill containing statins, ACE inhibitors and aspirin amongst other ingredients, could be given to healthy patients aged 55 years in pharmacies to help tackle cardiovascular disease.

He said pharmacists would be ideal for dispensing the drug, as patients already pick up preventative medicines like antimalarials from pharmacies, and don’t feel as if they are bothering their GP, he said, though added that doctors could also prescribe the pill.

He said: ‘We need a culture where there’s an effective, safe, relatively low cost polypill for everyone. I think that’s achievable at about £1 a day.

‘The pharmacy is an ideal portal of entry. You can get antimalarials directly from the pharmacy. Much easier, lower cost, and people don’t feel they’re bothering a specialist. That’s not to say that doctors shouldn’t do it too, but we need to stop ignoring the problem.’

He added that obtaining the pill at a pharmacy would solve the objections of other health professionals, such as GPs, who might be reluctant to prescribe such a pill for someone who hasn’t presented with high cholesterol or blood pressure.

At the seminar, health minister Earl Howe said the Government’s wanted pharmacy to have a greater role in primary care in order to ‘free up GP’s time to do the things they feel they are there to do.’