Pharmacists are being urged to discuss weight loss with obese customers.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which advises the NHS, has released new guidance encouraging chemists to bring up everyday health issues when people come to pick up their prescription.
With pharmacies a mainstay on the high street, advocates argue they are well placed to dish out health advice and could relieve pressure on the NHS.
Critics warn, however, sensitive customers could be offended regardless of the chemist’s good intentions.
“Popping into the local chemist and having a chat about health issues is, for a lot of people, hugely less threatening than a formal appointment with 'the doctor',” Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, said.
“Chemists welcome this contact as they seek to play a greater role in their customers' wellbeing.
“When it comes to weight issues, some will appreciate that extra training may be required to handle the conversation, but that will be par for the course for a health professional.”
Nearly a third (29%) of adults in England were obese in 2017, NHS Digital statistics show.
Most pharmacies have closed-off areas where customers can discuss private or sensitive issues.
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Nonetheless, not all are convinced the approach will be welcomed.
Christopher Snowdon, from the think tank Institute of Economic Affairs, said: “NICE seems to think GPs and pharmacies have nothing better to do than deliver banal health lectures to the public.
“I suspect the majority of customers would feel as offended by a pharmacist commenting on their body weight as they would if it came from any other shopkeeper”, The Telegraph reported.
Mr Fry argued, however, those who have a “friendly association” with their chemist may welcome the conversation providing the “right language” is used.
As well as weight loss, NICE also recommends pharmacists talk to customers about quitting smoking or cutting back on alcohol.
“Community pharmacists engage every day with people who buy over-the-counter medicines, collect prescriptions or ask for advice,” Professor Gillian Leng, deputy chief executive and director of health and social care at NICE, said.
“This is a vital opportunity to support people to maintain good health but also signpost them to other health services.”
Pharmacists “have good relationships with the local population, and an understanding of the physical, economic and social challenges some individuals face”, NICE states.
In 2017/18 alone, the UK had 10,660 hospital admissions for obesity, 489,300 for smoking and 337,870 for excess drinking.
“The NHS is making care more easily and conveniently available on the high street, with pharmacists offering more expert services than ever before as part of the NHS Long Term Plan,” Keith Ridge, chief pharmaceutical officer for the NHS, said.
“Pharmacists are already playing a bigger clinical role in the NHS through providing advice and treatment to people with minor illnesses, as well as increasingly being able to advise on killer conditions like heart problems and helping to tackle antibiotic resistance.”
Primary care minister Jo Churchill added: “Highly-skilled community pharmacists are an integral and trusted part of the NHS and we want every patient with a minor illness, or those seeking wellbeing guidance, to think 'Pharmacy First'.
“As the health service treats more patients than ever before, it is paramount that, where appropriate, patients can be assessed close to home, saving unnecessary trips to A&E or their GP and helping them get the care they need quicker.”