The Government is planning to empower pharmacists to end a NHS
vicious circle. At the moment, sufferers of common ailments are required
to see their GPs for prescription-only medication, but often cannot get
an appointment for days. Meanwhile, it is estimated that GPs spent a
third of their time on unnecessary consultations.
The Crown Review of Prescribing and Supply of Medicines, a
Government-appointed committee, will report on the future of prescribing
this spring, after months of consultations with representatives from the
NHS, the pharmaceutical industry and pharmacy chains. A key player in
the debate is the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), which is pressing
the Government to change the law so that pharmacists are defined as
practitioners under the terms of the 1968 Medicines Act.
The RPS has requested that some prescription-only drugs - such as
antibiotics for cystitis and eye infections, inhalers for asthma and
contraceptive pills - become available from the pharmacist. It also
wants over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to be available on the NHS to
people who are entitled to free prescriptions. This would take some of
the pressure off GPS and better employ the skills of pharmacists.
Pilot schemes are already underway to decide whether an extended role
for pharmacists is a valid and cost-effective option. These include a
head lice treatment trial in Nottingham (see panel), a repeat medication
trial and a trial in which pharmacists can prescribe medicines in a
Independent of whether or not the Government decides to change the law,
the demands of the RPS are symptomatic of an industry undergoing
The growth of the OTC sector has been well-documented. What is clear is
that pharmacists can no longer afford to be described as the ’invisible
face of healthcare’. This has tremendous implications, not only for the
NHS but also for PR practitioners in the healthcare sector.
The RPS has just published a booklet Pharmacy in a New Age, which
presents the pharmacy profession’s strategic plan for the 21st Century.
Before compiling the publication, the Society consulted all of its
One thing quickly became clear from the replies - nearly everybody who
responded highlighted communication as a major issue for
Beverley Parkin, head of PR at the RPS, says the development of better
communication needs to be at the heart of the future of the pharmacy
service, as pharmacists shed many ’hands-on’ tasks, such as preparing
medicines, and develop new roles as advisers on all aspects of medicines
and their uses. ’People’s perception of pharmacists is changing,’ she
says. ’Until now, they have been out of the line of vision. But
pharmacists are highly trained. They have skills in pharmacology and
know more about medicines than any other health professionals. Now, they
want a wider audience to appreciate the value of what they do. To do
this, they need to become better communicators.’
The RPS’s response has been to reinvent itself as an effective advocate
for the profession, with both internal and external communications high
on the agenda. But the RPS cannot win the communications battle
It requires the support of the healthcare PR sector.
Parkin says: ’We need a partnership approach. We need more dialogue and
communication with PR consultancies and help with materials to educate
the public and support pharmacists.’
Britain’s largest pharmacy chain, Boots the Chemists, endorses both the
RPS’s recommendations and its communications strategy. Corporate
spokesman, Tim Legge says: ’There is a great role for PR to play to help
inform the public of how they can get the most from their
But are PR practitioners ready to face the challenge? The healthcare PR
sector appears to be split between consultancies who already view
contact with pharmacists as an integral part of their activity - and
therefore foresee little change - and those who believe an enhanced role
for pharmacists may lead to a complete shift in approach.
Allison Hunter, communications and media relations manager at Novartis
Pharmaceuticals UK, says pharmacists are not a new audience. ’Just as
the pharmaceutical industry has been working with an expanded customer
base for a number of years now, so the audience for those of us working
in healthcare PR has already widened considerably.
’Pharmacists have always had expertise and interest in pharmaceutical
products, but if that expertise is deployed in a different way, so their
profile in PR programmes or campaigns will undoubtedly take on a new
dimension and it might well open up a host of new avenues,’ she
Peter Field, managing director of Shire Hall Communications, says there
is already a considerable pharmacist involvement in PR focus groups.
’Pharmacists have always been part of the PR target audience because of
the unique position they have at the customer interface. I don’t foresee
too much change,’ he says.
PR agencies cannot now afford to be complacent about their knowledge of
pharmacists, particularly if they have viewed them as the dispensers of
OTC medicines. Gareth Zundel, group PR director at Harvard PR, says that
working with pharmacists with prescribing powers would require a change
of mind set. ’In the past, we have tended to treat pharmacists as a
retail audience. There is now a need to treat them as a professional
This view is echoed by Dr Martin Godfrey, head of healthcare
communications at Hill and Knowlton. He believes pharmaceutical PR
consultancies will have to re-prioritise their key audiences. ’At
present,’ he says, ’pharmacists are low down on consultancies’ list of
people to try to promote services and products to - they don’t have much
influence. But, if they begin prescribing, they will shoot up a level,
joining doctors. Representatives will target pharmacists as they target
doctors now and our promotional effort will have to change. We will need
to compile sophisticated information about pharmacists and replicate it
on databases,’ says Godfrey.
But it is not just the pharmacist who will need to be targeted. If the
role of pharmacists is enhanced, then their assistants will also have
’While the consumer may enter the pharmacy seeking a conversation with
the pharmacist, it is more likely that the initial conversation will be
with the assistant. PR strategies and tactics targeted at assistants
need to be undertaken in parallel to communication with pharmacists,’
says Rebekka Thompson-Jones, senior account executive at Cohn and
An enhanced role for pharmacists and their assistants will almost
certainly create a wealth of new business opportunities. Grayling has
already worked with the Proprietary Association of Great Britain (PAGB)
on a cold and flu initiative. According to head of healthcare, Peter
Holden: ’One of the key messages was that ’there are lots of remedies
available in the pharmacy, so consult your local pharmacist’’.’ He
predicts that more pharmacists will be included in focus groups and that
pharmacist opinion leaders will be identified and targeted.
Hill and Knowlton’s Godfrey foresees the explosion of a new media
’A bigger slice of the promotional cake will be spent on pharmacists.
Advertisers will begin to focus on them. New magazines, journals, tapes,
videos and educational conferences will be aimed at them.’
Whatever the outcome of the Government committee on prescribing, there
is one issue on which the RPS, pharmacists and healthcare PR
practitioners are unanimous: safety. Lynne Herbert, account director at
Greenlines Healthcare Communications believes it is paramount.
’Pharmacists’ prescribing powers will be limited to those clearly
defined areas where it is safe for the public to bypass their GP,’ she
says. ’It will not happen overnight - it is likely pharmacists will
require additional training. But overall, it makes a lot of sense to
make pharmacists more accessible. They are a highly skilled resource and
a valuable asset to PR consultants.’
HEAD LICE: SCRATCHING THE SURFACE OF THE PROBLEM
A case of head lice is an unnecessary headache for most GPs - it is a
consultation which could be better handled by a pharmacist.
Head lice treatments are available over the counter, but many of those
who receive free NHS prescriptions or have children who are entitled to
free medicines are unable to afford them. Since head lice is
predominantly a childhood affliction, the current system is not
Nottingham Health Authority may have come up with a solution to this
problem. It is the official sponsor of the Nottingham Head Lice Project,
a three-month pilot which, if it is successful, may ultimately help
persuade the Government to change the laws on prescribing.
The Project started in January and involves schools, community health
professionals and over 30 pharmacists. ’The aim of the project is to
promote the role of pharmacists as the first point of call for advice,
diagnosis and treatment of an important but not critical condition,’
says Alicia Parry, communications and PR officer for Nottingham Health
In Nottingham, people with suspected head lice visit their pharmacist
and are given a wet comb to demonstrate that they really are
This ensures that only real cases are treated and avoids misuse of
pesticide lotions. The patient is given a small quantity of one of two
treatments authorised by the health authority. The pharmacist then fills
out a specially devised form and submits it to the HA for NHS
Joy Wingfield, chairman of Nottingham Local Pharmaceutical committee
says the success of the pilot will depend on both economics and public
contentment. ’The questions we have to answer are: Can we do it for the
same money or less? And: will the public accept the additional role of
pharmacists as mediators and facilitators of medication within certain
The scheme will run until the end of March and will be followed by a
thorough evaluation process. Wingfield says preliminary feedback is
’The health authority hopes to extend the pilot across Nottingham and
there are also plans to extend it to include other medications, such as
those for thrush,’ she says. ’This pilot is a real first and shows there
are ways of prescribing within the NHS. It’s an chance to use
pharmacists’ skills to tackle such a condition in an effective way.’
MERGERS: PR AGENCIES NEED TO STAY ALERT IN TIMES OF FLUX
The merger between Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham - dubbed the
merger of equals - collapsed in late February over the failure to agree
on the division of top jobs.
Glaxo Wellcome had reportedly objected to SmithKline Beecham managers
taking half of the jobs in the new company. Glaxo Wellcome’s
prescription medicines business is much larger than that of SmithKline
The problems were reportedly exacerbated by structural differences
between the two organisations. Glaxo Wellcome runs a much more
decentralised operation than SmithKline Beecham.
That failure proves that deals can be easy to plan but difficult to pull
off. Just weeks before news broke of the proposed Glaxo and SmithKline
Beecham merger, SmithKline Beecham was in talks with American Home
History, however, is on the side of the merger. Recent years have seen
mergers between Amersham and Nycomed, Pharmacia and Upjohn and Glaxo and
Wellcome to name but a few.
Mergers affect not only the personnel working within the drug companies,
but also the PR consultancies which represent them. When a merger is
proposed, pharmaceutical companies often shut the door on any outside
communications networks and take charge of their corporate PR.
Consultancies representing these companies are either gagged or are
simply unwilling to talk about the specific implications of a
Scott Clark, managing director of CPR, which has worked with Glaxo
Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham, says that mergers benefit the PR
industry as a whole. ’Mergers open up the job market. If people are made
redundant or choose to leave, it gives us access to many new skilled
people. Many of these people will choose to join consultancies.’
The downside is that if client contacts jump ship, years of
relationship-building may go to waste and there is another, short-term
problem. ’A newly merged company will often freeze its PR and marketing
budgets while it reorganises,’ says Clark. ’This can lead to loss of
Catherine Warne, head of healthcare at GCI Healthcare believes if
agencies do a good job, they will be retained. ’PR consultancies are
employed for a number of factors - knowledge, experience and
personality. A good consultancy should be an important asset to the
marketing team. Their knowledge, awareness and understanding of issues
are an important contributory factor to the success of the brand,’ she
What is clear is that mergers force PR companies to keep on their
Clark is emphatic. ’There are two types of agencies: those who fear
change and those who embrace it. The ones who embrace it and become more
global in their outlook will benefit, the others will be pushed out of
the market. The only thing we can be sure of is that there will be a
next deal. We haven’t seen the end of the mega-merger - so be
MEDIC ALERT: EDUCATING HEALTH PROFESSIONALS IN PR
Healthcare PR has been laid open for pharmaceutical companies in a new
bi-annual book entitled Communique.
A spin-off of Pharmaceutical Marketing, the monthly magazine for the
pharmaceutical industry, Communique claims to be ’the essential guide to
using and choosing PR and medical education’.
Project manager Ciaran Duck says the idea for the book was conceived
after research revealed a gap in the market.
’We originally intended to write a series of features in Pharmaceutical
Marketing about PR. Prior to this we carried out detailed market
research and held focus groups with pharmaceutical consultants.’
The research uncovered some surprising facts. ’The main point to emerge
was that clients in the pharmaceutical industry did not understand PR.
They didn’t know where medical education ends and PR begins.
Furthermore, they had no training in PR. We identified a huge skills
Still more worrying was the discovery that pharmaceutical company
personnel did not trust the PR sector: ’They were afraid they might be
’short-changed’ by PR, because they didn’t understand what PR
practitioners did and were unable to evaluate their roles.
’We realised we needed to educate clients from scratch about what PR
practitioners did. A series of features was not enough,’ says Duck.
Due to be updated every six months, Communique is both an information
tool and a directory. It is divided into two halves: how to use PR and
how to choose the right agency for the job. It is written by PR
professionals working in the healthcare sector and analyses campaigns,
profiles PR agencies and details the amount spent by each agency on PR
and medical education.Each chapter is illustrated with case studies.