A new emergency pharmacy service has prevented more than 8,000 unnecessary visits to North Wales GPs, outpatient clinics and casualty.

Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board (BCUHB) is the first health board in Wales to take advantage of a change in regulations, which allows the Welsh NHS to fund the emergency supply of prescription medication to patients.

The Community Pharmacy Medicines Service means more than 130 North Wales pharmacists can supply a patient’s regular medicines, free of charge, in an emergency without the need to get a prescription.

The service, which has been welcomed by patients, is aimed at reducing demand and workload on overstretched GP surgeries, out-of-hours’ services and A&E, so freeing up the time of healthcare staff, to spend on patients who need the care most.

New data reveals the Community Pharmacy Emergency Medicines Service completed 8,025 emergency supply consultations between December 2015 and November 2016, and supplied 11,936 items of medication.

Of these 8,025 consultations, 1,016 patients said they would have contacted their GP without the service, 2,863 said they would have accessed the GP out-of-hours’ service and 866 said they would have visited a nearby A&E department.

The remaining 3,149 said they would have potentially gone without their medication.

With the average 10-minute GP appointment costing £44 and a hospital outpatient appointment costing £153, according to NHS figures, the value of the saved appointments amounts to almost £300,000.

Health experts have also welcomed the success of the scheme but stress that patients need to take responsibility for their medications and only use the service in a genuine emergency.

BCUHB Chief Pharmacist Berwyn Owen said: “While these arrangements are more cost-effective than the alternative, which might be an A&E visit, the core benefit is really the fact that it frees up a GP’s time to deal with a patient who really needs medical help.

“We’re very pleased with the performance of the service and it is a real success story. We’ve been running the Community Pharmacy Medicines Service throughout BCUHB for two years now and we’re already seeing just how much of an impact it can have.

“But it’s important to remember that this is a service that has been set up to help patients access their medicines in an emergency when things have gone wrong – it’s not a service which should be accessed as a matter of routine.

“Everybody requiring regular medicine needs to take responsibility for their own healthcare needs and ensure their supplies are adequate according to their plans.

“Patients can also order their usual repeat prescriptions through MyHealthOnline. Patients who register online can order their repeat medication from their GP via the internet.

“Also, your pharmacy can arrange batches of repeat prescriptions for your regular medicines with the GP practice so that monthly prescriptions can be arranged in advance and patients collect their medicines from the pharmacy.

“This avoids patients having to contact their GP surgeries each month for a repeat prescription.”

Rory Wilkinson, BCUHB’s Head of Pharmacy, Primary Care and Community Services, said: “In this area we have a lot of temporary residents on holiday which means more people are likely to require urgent access to medication. This service provides another layer of support whereby people can be seen by someone else to enable A&E nurses and GPs to see people who need their services for medical reasons.”

The supply of medicines in the UK is controlled by the Medicines Act. The legislation enables a pharmacist to use their professional judgement to supply a prescription-only medicine to a patient without a prescription in an emergency situation.

Previously, patients were usually asked to pay the cost of the medication and supply.

Patients were rarely prepared to pay these fees and would access general medical services to obtain prescriptions at short notice, placing additional demand on the GP practice or GP out of hours’ services.

There are currently 132 pharmacies across the BCUHB area.

At the community pharmacy, patients undergo a short consultation with the pharmacist. The patient’s identity is checked and a check is also made to ensure that the medication they have requested is regularly supplied to them on prescription.

The pharmacy will then make organise a supply of the regular medication to the patient which is free of charge with the cost being paid by NHS Wales.