Rural GPs facing threat from pharmacy businesses

GPs surgeries, such as this practice in Cumbrae, have been targeted by pharmacies. Picture: Robert Perry
GPs surgeries, such as this practice in Cumbrae, have been targeted by pharmacies. Picture: Robert Perry
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AFTER becoming the new GP on the island of North Uist, I told an interviewer from a medical journal that I really appreciated the kind of medicine that could be offered here compared with many other places.

With a small list size and plenty of spare capacity, I had found that patients and their doctors seemed to be happier and more satisfied with healthcare here than on the mainland.

However, a dark shadow was looming in the background.

Like every other dispensing surgery in Scotland, we knew that our entire working model could be destroyed at a stroke if we came to the attention of one of the many pharmacy businesses set up to target dispensing GP areas.

In the past five years about a fifth of dispensing practices have been hit in this way and the trend seems to be upwards.

The loss of dispensing income in a small rural practice is often enough to cripple them financially by removing the cross-subsidy that supports staffing levels.

This week we got official confirmation that a pharmacy application had been submitted with a view to taking over dispensing in North Uist and the neighbouring island of Benbecula.

Patients, many of them elderly, could now face return trips of 60 miles to pick up prescriptions, and we face losing three members of staff, including one GP.

This will have a devastating impact on the practice team and our ability to provide appointments and services. Benbecula will be similarly affected.

Unfortunately, the current legislation is stacked against us.

The vast majority of pharmacy applications in similar circumstances have gone through over the past few years, despite vociferous local objections.

MSPs will always say that rural health services need protection, but the reality is that the legislation makes it almost impossible for rural doctors or their patients to have any say in the final outcome.

Unless something is done urgently, I fear that our community will be the latest to find itself with an unwanted chemist shop at the expense of lifeline healthcare provision.

• Dr Gerry Wheeler is a GP in North Uist

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