ANTIBIOTICS will be prescribed by pharmacists to treat a common infection for the first time in Scotland under a scheme to free-up thousands of GP appointments.

Specially trained pharmacists in the North East are now able to give women aged 16 to 65 with a simple urinary tract infection the medication they need, saving the patient a trip to the family doctor.

But the Health Secretary has now signalled her intention to roll out the pioneering project across Scotland.

NHS Grampian is the first health board in the country introduce the service and more than 90 community pharmacies have signed up to offer the treatment.

The service has already been piloted in NHS Forth Valley and it is understood NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde is also testing the idea, while NHS Borders is considering adopting the system.

NHS Grampian estimates the scheme could free up nearly 25,000 GP appointments a year in their region alone.

The trial in Forth Valley, when pharmacists were also trained to give out treatment for the skin condition impetigo, apparently saw around 1200 people seek medication from the pharmacist instead of their doctor's surgery with only a few hundred ultimately requiring a GP appointment.

Dr Alasdair Jamieson, GP Lead for Aberdeen City with NHS Grampian, said: “Around half of all women will have a urinary tract infection (UTI) at least once in their lives, usually more frequently as they age. Consequently, many people are acutely aware when they have a UTI and when it requires treatment.

“Previously, over-the-counter treatments from community pharmacies for UTI would only relieve the symptoms and didn’t address the root bacterial infection. That wasn’t ideal for patients and we’ve made these changes to ensure that people are able to get the right treatment at the right time.

“Antibiotic treatment for UTI isn’t always necessary, as uncomplicated cases can resolve in a few days, however, if symptoms are moderate to severe, an antibiotic is recommended.”

Around one to three per cent of all GP consultations every year are about female UTI's and Dr Jamieson said a significant proportion of these patients could be seen and treated by their pharmacist.

He said: “That has real potential to reduce GP workload, freeing up appointments and allowing greater focus on more complex, urgent medical conditions. Clearly that will have significant direct and indirect benefits for patients right across general practice.”

Workload pressures on GPs have risen as treatments have become more complex and the number of frail elderly patients needing care has risen. Community pharmacists, who already offer a minor ailment service, have long argued they could take on more responsibility.

Health Secretary Shona Robison said recognised the value of the work being undertaken in NHS Grampian.

She said: "Through the National Delivery Plan to Transform Urgent Care, consideration is being given to how a similar model could be rolled out across Scotland benefiting both in and out of hours care.”

Dr Caroline Hind, deputy director of pharmacy and medicines management for NHS Grampian, said: “We’ve worked closely with community pharmacists across Grampian to prepare for this change.

“That’s included specialist training and guidelines that allow pharmacists to operate within defined protocols to provide an antibiotic for uncomplicated cases."

As UTIs in men are rarely "uncomplicated” male patients will still require a GP appointment or referral.

Sheilann Strachan, pharmacist at Boots Garthdee - one of the participating pharmacies, said: “We are delighted to support this new service which will allow community pharmacists to have access to a more effective treatment option for women presenting with a UTI.

“In the majority of cases, we hope that the service will result in quicker treatment and symptomatic relief without the need to refer women to their GP for further care...

“The pharmacist will need to ask some questions to find out the exact problem. They may also need a urine sample and we are able to provide further advice and referral if required."

Matt Barclay, director of operations for Community Pharmacy Scotland, said it was frustrating as a pharmacist to see patients and know what was wrong but have to refer them to out of hours GP services before they could give them treatment.

He said evidence was emerging that patients liked the service NHS Grampian is introducing. He added: "There is a bit more evaluation still to be done but certainly it is something that we would like to see and believe could work on a national basis."