When should you go to the pharmacy vs the GP?

Dr Petra Simic
Medical Director, Health Clinics at Bupa UK
21 April 2023
Next review due April 2026

Sometimes, it can be difficult to know when you should see a doctor and when a pharmacist would be better. Here, I’ll explore the types of conditions and illnesses a pharmacist can support you with, as well as when it’s best to see a GP.

person having a knee consultation

What can a pharmacist help with?

Pharmacists are qualified healthcare professionals. Most pharmacists have studied for at least five years, and many have had years of experience since qualifying. They have become experts in medicines – both those that are prescribed but also those available over the counter. So, they know what their uses are, what the side effects could be, and what to avoid while you’re taking them. They also understand how your body works and can offer you heath advice about minor issues.

Help with minor issues

In case you’re not sure about what counts as a minor health issue, the type of things pharmacists can help with include:

  • sore throats and coughs
  • stomach upsets
  • cold and flu
  • aches and pains
  • fungal infections such as athlete’s foot
  • mouth ulcers
  • constipation
  • emergency contraception
  • hay fever

To help you with these issues, pharmacists can offer you over the counter medicines which are appropriate for your condition. They can tell you how to take them safely as well as identify any possible contraindications (reasons why you shouldn’t take them).

Pharmacists can also offer general health and wellbeing advice. Many pharmacies open at convenient times, including some evenings and weekends. And it’s usually possible to find a pharmacy which is open until midnight or later.

Some pharmacists have done additional training to enable them to treat minor illnesses, and some can prescribe specific medication that you cannot buy over the counter. Pharmacists can often help you decide if you need to see a GP initially or whether you can try some other approaches first.

Wellbeing services

Pharmacists can also usually offer you a range of general wellbeing services. These can include things such as blood pressure checks and stop smoking advice. Some pharmacies offer flu and travel vaccinations too, as well as anti-malarial tablets.

You may be able to access additional services such as weight management programs, chlamydia checks, or substance misuse support as well – so check which services your local pharmacy provides.

Medicine checks

You can get help with using certain new medicines via the New Medicine Service. Here, pharmacies can offer you detailed advice and support to use new medicines if you have conditions such as:

This includes a series of appointments, beginning when you first start your new medication, and then later on – to see how you are getting on. It can help you to work out a plan for when to take your medication, how to manage side effects and other lifestyle considerations.

When should you see a GP?

It’s a good idea to see a GP if you have new or ongoing symptoms or are worried about your health.

Unlike pharmacists, doctors are trained to diagnose conditions, run appropriate tests, and prescribe a wider range of medications. They can also refer you to the relevant expert if this is required.

It’s hard to list every possible symptom which would require a visit to the doctors, but here are a few of the types of things that you should discuss with a GP:

  • unexpected weight loss
  • a persistent cough or breathlessness
  • unexplained bruising or bleeding
  • skin lesions that will not heal
  • changing moles
  • new lumps or bumps
  • digestive issues such as persistent indigestion, persistent diarrhoea, or blood in your poo
  • recurring urine infections
  • low mood or anxiety
  • ongoing pain (for example from your back, period or stomach)

A GP can offer you a wider range of medicine than you would be able to get over the counter from your pharmacist too. This can include:

  • antibiotics (should you need them)
  • ongoing birth control
  • medication to reduce cholesterol or manage pain

If you are struggling to get a GP appointment or are confused about where to get help, then you can also call 111 for health advice. Here you can have your symptoms assessed and find out which type of support would suit your needs.

And, if you become unwell out of your GP opening hours, 111 can also refer you onto out of hours care if you need it.

Bupa offers digital GP services through different routes to suit you. If you have Bupa health insurance you have unlimited access to Digital GP appointments through the Digital GP app (in partnership with Babylon). If you don't have health insurance, our remote private GP service is available to anyone who wishes to book a self-pay video appointment with a private GP via Bupa Health Clinics.

Dr Petra Simic
Dr Petra Simić (she/her)
Medical Director, Health Clinics at Bupa UK



Julia Ebbens, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

    • How your pharmacy can help. NHS., accessed 17 April 2023
    • Personal communication with Dr Petra Simić , Medical Director, Bupa Health Clinics April 2023
    • New medicine service. Pharmaceutical services negotiating committee., updated February 2023
    • When to see your GP. NHS., accessed 18 April 2023
    • Cancer symptoms. Cancer research UK., accessed 18 April 2023

About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. This is because we believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and wellbeing.

Our information has been awarded the PIF TICK for trustworthy health information. It also follows the principles of the The Information Standard.

The Patient Information Forum tick

Learn more about our editorial team and principles >

Content is loading