pharmacy Researchers have called for all pharmacies to receive the support to provide a full range of health services in order to reduce pressure on GPs, particularly in deprived areas.

The study by Durham University suggests that 89% of England's population live within a 20-minute walk of a pharmacy. In deprived areas, the proportion was nearly 100%.

Some pharmacies already provide services such as blood-pressure checks, diabetes screening and lifestyle advice, but this "very much depends on whether local health bosses are willing to fund them".

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Study author Dr Adam Todd said: "These results show that pharmacies are well-placed in the community to deliver public health services.

"This is particularly important for the poorest areas where more people die from conditions such as smoking, alcohol misuse and obesity compared to people from more affluent areas.

"With easy access without patients needing to make an appointment, the results suggest there is a potential for community pharmacies to deliver public health interventions to areas which need it most."

Inverse care law irrelevant
The paper suggested that said pharmacies could play a particularly vital role because the often-quoted inverse care law, in which areas with the best health services tended to be the ones with the least health problems, was not true for deprived areas with easy access to pharmacies.

English Pharmacy Board chair Dr David Branford said the study demonstrated the "huge potential" the sector could have.

"The less formal approach and sheer convenience provided by a High Street presence means they are a beacon of wellbeing and advice to many who would simply never engage with other healthcare settings."

A Department of Health spokeswoman said that "community pharmacies are an integral part of the NHS", pointing to the increase in the number of pharmacies to 11,500 from just over 9,500 in 2005.