Oldham surgery is first in the UK to employ Covid mental health specialist

Date published: 05 February 2021

A surge in mental health cases has prompted a surgery in Oldham to become the first in the country to employ the services of a specialist pharmacist to alleviate dangerous conditions such as self-harm, crippling depression, alcohol and drug addiction and even suicidal thoughts.

In direct contrast to the outbreak of the pandemic where patients were treated for physical problems, Dr Anita Sharma from the busy South Chadderton Health Centre noticed that around 70% of people were presenting with mental health needs.

And given that Dr Sharma believes short appointment times cannot even scratch the surface of such heartache and that family doctors simply do not have the experience and skills to deal with cases on an individual basis, she appointed pharmacist Matthew Ayre – thanks to funding from her local GP Federation.

“Poor mental health is rated as one of the top three killers in the UK already and two new surveys have shown that problems have become chronic in the old and young in particular, since lockdown began,” said Dr Sharma.

“GPs have very limited time with patients, and it causes me great distress that I am unable to help them, properly.

"Whilst realising that every patient is an individual, we do not have the knowledge around medicines and time to follow-up.

"Consequently, we often turn to the most obvious rather than most appropriate choice of medication.”

Matthew spends two days per week at the practice and works with patients judged by Dr Sharma to require his specialist support.

With a rich background of experience and a developing expertise in areas including mood disorders, medicines management and brain chemistry, Matthew spends around 20 minutes on appointments and has been welcomed warmly at the practice with patients very open to seeing a pharmacist rather than their usual doctor.

“I engage with patients face-to-face and we work together to examine the factors that have led here, maybe reduce and manage the dosage of drugs they are on, develop plans and organise regular reviews,” said Matthew.

Overcoming stigma is one of the central issues facing mental health treatment, with 40% of men reluctant to even talk about their problems.

Worries about debt, unemployment, trying to home-school children and isolation have all had an impact on the mental health of the nation.

Matthew added: “It is quite possible that mental health could be the next pandemic.

"However, we are understanding much more now, particularly through studies on the brain and how they affect patients’ wellbeing.”

Dr Sharma’s imaginative approach is typical of a borough that has been an innovator in healthcare going back to the birth of the first test-tube baby Louise Joy Brown, in 1978 at the Royal Oldham Hospital.

“Our practice is all about fresh approaches as long as they meet patient need,” added Dr Sharma.

"We are one of the first Homeless-Friendly surgeries in the country and the volunteers within our Patient Participation Group have initiated projects to provide sanitary products for those in disadvantaged areas and raised awareness of medical problems such as antibiotic resistant infections.

"We are also hopeful that we inspire others and at this time of acute mental health crisis, would love to see a Matthew in every surgery before more lives are tragically lost.”

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