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New and expanded routes for pharmacist training detailed in long-awaited NHS England workforce plan

The number of training places available for pharmacists in England will increase by 50% to almost 5,000 by 2031/32, and new routes for education and progression will be offered, the new NHS Long Term Workforce Plan reveals.

The much-anticipated and long-overdue plan details a programme of ambitious incremental growth for pharmacist education and training, which will see an initial rise in training places of 15% in 2026/27, followed by a 29% increase to around 4,300 by 2028/29, before reaching the +50% target by 2031/32.

This comes as estimates suggest training places will need to grow by 31-55% to around 5,174 by 2033 to meet demand for pharmacy services.

In a further development, consideration is being given to a potential pharmacist degree apprenticeship, which will provide an additional route for training and add to the existing apprenticeship offering for pharmacy technicians.

This will mean trainee pharmacists can ‘earn while they learn’, gaining a full degree while ensuring they meet the high clinical standards required by the relevant professional regulators.

Expanding routes for progression

Other reforms outlined in the plan include the potential for pharmacists and other healthcare professionals such as paramedics to train as doctors under a shortened medical degree programme.

This has been made possible by the UK’s exit from the EU, the plan says, which has allowed for greater flexibility to recognise prior learning and experience towards attaining a medical degree.

Supporting multiple entry routes into health careers in this way will make education pathways as efficient as possible by widening access and attracting more students, as well as supporting progression opportunities, the plan adds.

NHS England will work with the GMC and medical schools to explore the details of this move.

Workforce growth and transformation

Arrangements for all newly qualified pharmacists to be independent prescribers, shortening the qualification time from around eight years to five years, is also reiterated in the workforce plan, as was the commitment to support 3,000 existing pharmacists to gain independent prescriber qualifications.

The number of pharmacy technicians will also grow in future years, although the plan provides no further detail on how this will be achieved.

The plan also refers to the increase of specialist clinical and technical roles in hospital pharmacy, which it says will continue to be central to high-quality medicines optimisation.

Through these measures, NHS England will continue to support growth and transformation across the pharmacy workforce, ensuring clinical pharmacist and pharmacy technician roles provide high quality, safe hospital care, as well as playing a greater part in multidisciplinary clinical teams, the plan states.

The profession responds

Commenting on the plan, Tase Oputu, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in England, said: ‘Pharmacy leaders have been united in calling for the workforce plan to cover the whole of pharmacy and it is welcome to see this reflected today.

‘Pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and wider pharmacy teams will be crucial to reducing health inequalities and supporting the health service of the future so that patients can continue to access the medicines and care they need.

‘With pharmacists delivering more clinical services and with growing numbers of pharmacist independent prescribers, it is really positive to see the plan commit to investing in pharmacy education and training. We all want to see improved support for our workforce so we can keep looking after patients, including steps to recruit and retain pharmacists within the profession.

‘How this plan is put into practice, backed by long-term funding, will be key to its success.’

As well as focusing on clinical pharmacy in hospital settings, the workforce plan has specific measures for community pharmacy in recognition of what it describes as the sector’s ‘unique circumstances’.

These include increased use of hub and spoke, automated dispensing and paperless systems to increase efficiency and release capacity across the community pharmacy workforce to support a greater focus on delivering clinical services.

NHS 75th anniversary

Unveiling the full plan on 30 June 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: ‘On the 75th anniversary of our health service, this government is making the largest single expansion in NHS education and training in its history. This is a plan for investment and a plan for reform.

‘In the coming years we will train twice the number of doctors and an extra 24,000 more nurses a year, helping to cut waiting lists and improve patient care. And we will do more to retain our brilliant NHS staff and reform the way the health system works to ensure it is fit for the future.

‘This is something no other government has done and will be one of the most significant commitments I will make as Prime Minister – acting as the cornerstone for our vision for a better, more modern healthcare system and putting the NHS on a sure footing for the long term.’

Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief executive, said: ‘This is a truly historic day for the NHS in England – for 75 years, the extraordinary dedication, skill and compassion of NHS staff has been the backbone of the health service – and the publication of our first-ever NHS Long Term Workforce Plan now gives us a once in a generation opportunity to put staffing on sustainable footing for the years to come.’

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