Soaring demand for GP and emergency services could be reduced if there is a “radical shift” in the role of pharmacists, a new report claims.

High street presence and long opening hours mean that community pharmacies have the potential to play a “crucial role” in providing care, the authors said.

“Refocusing pharmacists as care-givers” could also improve access for patients, according to the Now or never: Shaping pharmacy for the future report led by Nuffield Trust director of policy Dr Judith Smith.

This would also help the health service to cope with the unprecedented financial squeeze it faces, the report said.

The independent report, created for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, states pharmacists’ potential as care-givers is often “going untapped” and calls for pharmacist to shift their focus away from the dispensing and supply of medicines to a broader range of services.

It also says that there is insufficient public awareness of the range of services pharmacists can offer.

Pharmacists across England should be expanding their role by treating many common illnesses, supporting people with long-term conditions and challenging wasteful, dangerous or inefficient use of medicines, it concluded.

Unless this shift takes place, the NHS will be “letting down patients” by missing opportunities to do more for less, it adds.

Dr Smith said: “The pharmacists I met during my work are demonstrating that their profession has far more to offer than the public or many people in the NHS understand.

“Yet all too often their potential is going untapped, and this must change if the NHS is to be able to assure taxpayers that people are being supported to get the best use out of their medicines and pharmacies.

“With care for the frail elderly and emergency out-of-hours treatment at the top of the agenda, the door is open for pharmacists to secure a wider and important role in caring for patients.

“It won’t be open for long, though, and only concerted and determined action from the profession itself can make sure that they don’t find themselves shut out.”

Dr David Branford, chair of the English board of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, added: “As hospitals change and much of expert care moves beyond the hospital, pharmacists need to be a part of the core team looking after patients.

“Safer care will be enabled by better use of technology, allowing patients to share their care record with pharmacists.

“Pharmacists need to contribute to better care across all parts of the health service.

“Priorities are improving the care of people in care homes, supporting older people to stay well in their own homes and working alongside GP, nursing and social care colleagues to keep people safe and to improve health outcomes.

“I am certain the profession will rise to the clear challenge set out in this report.”

NHS England’s medical director Professor Sir Bruce Keogh said: “We have growing evidence that patients understand their community pharmacy is a convenient and accessible place for treatment and advice such as smoking cessation or flu immunisation.

“I am also well aware that community pharmacy could and should play an important part in delivering a new approach to urgent and emergency care by freeing up capacity in other parts of the NHS, and I will soon be publishing the interim findings of my in-depth review into urgent and emergency care.”