When to see a pharmacist instead of a GP

When to see a pharmacist instead of a GP

When you have a medical concern, you might turn to your GP as the first port of call. But did you know that pharmacists can play an important role in helping you to care for your health too? 

In this post, we explore the vital work that GPs and pharmacists do, how their roles differ and why pharmacists are so important to the health service. We also look at some specific situations where a pharmacist might be best placed to help you.

What does a GP do?

A General practitioner (GP) is responsible for providing medical care to patients in the community. They treat all common medical conditions, including acute and chronic illnesses, and they provide preventative care, in the form of education, screening and immunisations, for example. They also refer patients to hospitals, consultants and other medical services for specialist or urgent care[1].

According to the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), GPs who qualify in the UK will have spent between four and six years in medical school, depending on their specific courses[2]. During their degree, they will have gained relevant experience and skills in clinical science and practical clinical tasks. They will also have undertaken a wide range of placements under supervision in various settings, including GP surgeries, clinics and hospitals. On graduating from medical school, they have to undertake two years of foundation training. This involves six rotations across a wide range of medical specialties. Once the foundation programme is complete, they must spend three years in GP specialty training. This training involves a mix of hospital work and general practice, as well as a range of assessments – one of which allows candidates to join the General Medical Council’s (GMC) GP Register. 

With so many years of training and such a broad range of experience, it’s no wonder that so many people approach their GP in the first instance when they have a health concern. But what about pharmacists? What can they do for you?

What does a pharmacist do?

If you think that pharmacists are just responsible for dispensing medicines, you’re probably not alone. Traditionally, there has been a public perception that pharmacists are drug experts but that they are not necessarily qualified to provide health advice or deliver clinical services. However, this perception has been changing in recent years, thanks to a variety of public awareness campaigns that aimed to open people’s eyes to the wide-ranging services that pharmacists provide.

It’s true that pharmacists are experts in medicines. As such, they can dispense prescriptions, provide access to the repeat prescription service (if agreed by your GP) and issue emergency supplies of medicines. They can also sell non-prescription medicines, give information and advice to help you choose the right medicines for you and provide guidance on taking your medicine safely. In addition, they can dispose of medicines that are out of date or not needed. 

What many people don’t realise is that pharmacists are also qualified to offer treatment advice on a range of minor illnesses and injuries and give information and advice about healthy living. 

Indeed, to qualify as a pharmacist, candidates need to have a minimum of five years’ training. This includes a four-year Master of Pharmacy degree (MPharm), plus a foundation year of employment where the trainee must collect evidence of their competence and work under observation. They also need to pass the General Pharmaceutical Council’s registration assessment and meet the fitness to practice requirements needed to register as a pharmacist. 

With so much training, pharmacists are well placed to give advice about many of the everyday complaints that lead to people making GP appointments[3].

Why are pharmacists important in the health service?

Pharmacists are a crucial part of the health service – not only because of the vital work they do in issuing and advising on medicines but because they can help to relieve pressure on overstretched GP surgeries by providing treatment advice for minor illnesses and injuries.

However, despite public awareness campaigns, it seems many people still don’t know the full spectrum of services available at their local pharmacy. A survey by the National Pharmacy Associate (NPA), carried out in October 2021, revealed that almost a third of people (32%) do not realise that pharmacies offer flu vaccinations, while 39% are unaware that pharmacies have private consultation areas in which a range of health services can be provided[4].

When to see a pharmacist

From coughs, colds and sore throats to teething, red eye and rashes, there are a range of minor illnesses and injuries that pharmacists can offer treatment advice on.

Did you know your pharmacist can help with family planning and sexual health too? They can provide emergency contraception and screen for and treat chlamydia.

They can also help you to improve your health through their stop smoking, weight management and substance misuse services.

Pharmacists provide a range of testing services too, including blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol tests. 

In addition, if you suffer from asthma, you can consult your pharmacy for advice on inhaler use. 

With many services on offer at your local pharmacy, if you need health advice, it’s worth checking if a pharmacist can help before making an appointment with your GP. You might find that you get the help you need quickly and easily without a trip to the doctor[3].


[1] https://www.healthcareers.nhs.uk/explore-roles/doctors/roles-doctors/general-practitioner-gp/general-practice-gp

[2] https://www.rcgp.org.uk/training-exams/discover-general-practice/aspiring-medics/becoming-a-gp.aspx

[3] https://www.nhs.uk/nhs-services/prescriptions-and-pharmacies/pharmacies/how-your-pharmacy-can-help/

[4] https://www.npa.co.uk/news-and-events/news-item/expectations-grow-for-what-pharmacies-can-deliver-but-awareness-of-nhs-services-still-limited-new-npa-figures-suggest/