You don’t always have to fight for a GP appointment when you have a health issue, sometimes your local pharmacist can help - and you might be surprised by the extent of their knowledge and powers. Kerry Potter meets one who does so much more than just dispense medicines
If you’ve ever tried to repeatedly ring your GP 238 times at 8am, while simultaneously catching a train, logging into a meeting and/or doing the school run, and then still failed to get an appointment, you will be interested to hear that there are a host of health issues that your local pharmacist may be able to help with. We walk past them every day on the high street but we tend to forget what a wealth of knowledge pharmacists have. Now the government is trying to empower them, to make them our first port of call in certain circumstances, in order to help take the pressure off GP surgeries.
I had a really interesting chat with Jaspreet Randhawa, aka the Whole Body Pharmacist about this. Both a holistic and clinical prescribing pharmacist, she has founded a brand new Zoom health and wellbeing consultation service, with a 'whole body' approach, in which she can help with existing ailments and/or discuss preventative health measures. (I tried it and was hugely impressed – watch this space for my review). When she’s not consulting online, she works in a pharmacy in Chelsea, West London, advising patients face-to-face.
“Pharmacists can do so much for patients, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have a great one near you,” she says. "Try an independent pharmacist in the first instance. Often big corporate pharmacies are short on time and understaffed, whereas independents want to retain their customers and build relationships with people. That means you often get a better service.” Some pharmacists will simply dispense prescriptions made out by doctors, but pharmacists with a prescribing qualification (like Jaspreet) can often write those prescriptions for you, thus cutting out the middle (wo)man.
It’s all about finding the right one, basically, so you may need to shop around a bit. “Go into a pharmacy and ask if they have the time and expertise to help with your specific concern – different pharmacists have their own interests and specialties. Not everyone offers everything.” But get a good one and they’re worth their weight in gold.
Here are five things that it might surprise you to know a pharmacist can help with.
Some pharmacists can prescribe antibiotics, HRT and other medicines
Many people don’t realise that some pharmacists are now allowed to write prescriptions for some medicines. “This is especially useful to know with winter coming,” says Jaspreet, “Because last winter the UK ran out of antibiotics, and we had a lot of unnecessary hospitalizations as a result.”
Jaspreet can help track down the medicine you need and write a private prescription for you. This service is included in the cost of an online consultation with her, then you’d need to pay the dispensing pharmacy for the medicine. For a course of Amoxicillin, for example, this could be between £6 and £15, so it’s not prohibitively expensive.
Jaspreet helps sort travel vaccinations, either administering them in person (when she’s working at the pharmacy) or by writing a prescription and directing you to a travel clinic.
You can talk to some pharmacists about HRT too. From September 2022, pharmacists began selling the vaginal oestrogen tablet Gina, to treat vaginal dryness, over the counter. A prescription is still needed for other types of HRT - and a prescribing pharmacist, who specialises in this area, can do this.
They can help you work out what vitamins and other supplements you should take
Is there any bigger modern wellbeing minefield than working out which supplements are best for you? “Vitamins, probiotics and supplements are such a huge market now, it’s so hard to know what’s best for you,” says Jaspreet. “
And sometimes you can do yourself more harm than good. For example, if some probiotics are taken at the same time as antibiotics, they can stop the latter from working. And iron and calcium tend to block the absorption of some medications. You might also take too much of something or take vitamins that cancel each other out.”
If your pharmacist has an interest in this area, they can be invaluable in helping you plan your optimum supplement schedule.
They can lobby your GP on your behalf
We tend to visit the pharmacy once we’ve seen a GP and need a prescription dispensed, but you can actually see a pharmacist first to help you gain access to your GP. “I can email your GP and say, ‘I’ve seen this person face-to-face and would ask that you give them an urgent appointment tomorrow,’ or if there’s a problem with your medication, I can flag this to your GP,” says Jaspreet.
Having a pharmacist lobby on your behalf can help speed up and finesse what can be a tricky process, although, as Jaspreet points out, it’s less about her stepping on a doctor’s toes, rather having a conversation.
They could help you explore medical cannabis
The use of medicinal cannabis will be a huge growth area in the next decade, predicts Jaspreet. “It’s an holistic approach but with science behind it. It’s often prescribed for pain in relation to cancer treatment, arthritic pain, insomnia, anxiety and for autoimmune disease. It’s worth exploring for chronic pain if the alternative is taking painkillers indefinitely, and painkillers will always go up in strength.”
Your initial appointment to discuss medicinal cannabis does need to be with a specialist doctor but some pharmacists can refer you to that doctor in the first place, and you can discuss ongoing treatment with (and in some cases get a repeat prescription from) the pharmacist.
Pharmacists can give you a second opinion
The idea of garnering a second opinion regarding medical issues has hit the headlines recently. Journalist Merope Mills is campaigning for Martha’s Rule, the legal right for patients and their families to formally request a review of their healthcare plan, following the needless death of her 13-year-old daughter, Martha, in hospital after a cycling accident. The coroner ruled Martha would have probably survived if she’d been moved to intensive care, but doctors disregarded her parents’ flagging of her deteriorating health.
In a similar vein, if you’re not sure about what you’ve been told by your GP, a pharmacist can review that advice and offer their view. “You can come to me and say, ‘I have this illness and these are the medications I’ve been prescribed – is this the best path for me?’” says Jaspreet, who will research your condition and medication. “If necessary, I can suggest alternative options.”
A 30-minute consultation with the Whole Body Pharmacist costs £99