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NHS pharmacy services explained

What to expect from your pharmacist

Pharmacists play a key role in providing quality healthcare. They are experts in medicines and will use their clinical expertise, together with their practical knowledge to advise you on common problems such as coughs, colds, aches and pains, as well as healthy eating and stopping smoking. 

Pharmacists can also help you decide whether you need to see a health professional. They can help you consider the alternatives next time you are thinking of making a doctor's appointment.

You can always call NHS 111, which will help you find the right NHS service.

Pharmacists are highly trained health professionals. Before becoming a pharmacist they will have completed a four year university degree and have worked for a year under the supervision of an experienced and qualified pharmacist, usually in a hospital or community pharmacy (such as a supermarket or high street pharmacy).

All pharmacists have to be registered with the regulatory body for pharmacy professionals, the General Pharmaceutical Council. As well as working in hospitals, community pharmacies and the pharmaceutical industry, you can find pharmacists working in a variety of places, such as in prisons, teaching and research facilities, and the military.

Community pharmacist

Community pharmacists dispense and check prescriptions and provide advice to patients on the medicines that have been prescribed for them, for example, providing advice on how to take the medicines and advising on common side effects. Many NHS prescriptions are now issued via the Electronic Prescription Service (see drop box below).

Community pharmacists will take back medicines that are no longer required so they can be disposed of correctly, and they can also provide advice on minor illnesses and staying healthy. Most (but not all) pharmacists are also able to offer other services to their patients.

What services do pharmacies offer?

All pharmacies will provide the following services:

  • dispensing
  • repeat dispensing
  • disposal of unwanted or out-of-date medicines
  • advice on treatment of minor conditions and healthy living

Other services that may be available from your local pharmacy:

If you have a long-term condition and you have been prescribed a new medicine for the first time, you may want to ask your pharmacist for the New Medicine Service. The pharmacist will then explain everything you need to know about your new medicine, including how to take it and advise you about any common side-effects.

To ensure you're provided with the right medicine (including non-prescription medicines) and/or advice, the pharmacist may ask you a range of questions. These may include:

  • Have you taken the medicine before?
  • Who is the medicine for?
  • What are the symptoms?
  • How long have you had these symptoms?
  • What action has already been taken?
  • Are you taking any other medicines for this or any other conditions?

Find out what questions you should ask about your medicines

You can talk to your pharmacist in confidence, even about the most personal symptoms, and you don't need to make an appointment. It is possible to walk into any community pharmacy and ask to speak with the pharmacist. Most pharmacies now have a private consultation area where you can discuss issues with pharmacy staff without being overheard. Alternatively you can arrange a consultation over the phone.


Out-of-hours service

Community pharmacies already support NHS out-of-hour (OOH) services through extended opening hours, rota services and on-call services. In addition, some pharmacies offer an OOH service, providing minor ailment schemes during the times other NHS services are not available.

Pharmacists may be able to supply prescription-only medicines during the OOH period but there may be a charge for this. However, in many areas a specific OOH provider, such as an OOH GP service, supplies medicines when pharmacies are closed.

If a prescription is obtained through the OOH service or through an OOH pharmacy service, prescription charges are usually still applicable unless the patient is exempt from paying prescription charges. The payment method may differ from one provider to another.

Also read the information about out-of-hours medicines.

Medicines Use Review (MUR) service

This is is an appointment with a pharmacist to check how you are getting on with your medicine, which is useful if you regularly take several prescription medicines or have a long-term illness.

This confidential service will help you find out more about your medicine, identify any problems you may be having with taking your medicine as intended, and help you take your medicine to best effect.

What is the Electronic Prescription Service?

The Electronic Prescription Service (EPS) allows electronic prescriptions to be generated and transmitted by prescribers, for example GPs, and received and dispensed by pharmacists.

If you get regular prescriptions, simply register for the service and pick up your repeat prescription from a pharmacy of your choice.You don't need to see your GP to pick up a paper prescription any more.

Download the EPS patient information leaflet (PDF, 52.8kb), which explains how you can use the service in detail. Alternatively you can find information on the HSCIC website.

Your GP practice may already allow you to order your repeat prescription online as part of GP online services. Check with your GP how you can register for an account.


Common questions about prescriptions

How do I make a complaint about my pharmacy?

If you are unhappy with the service you received at your pharmacy, speak or write to your pharmacist (or the manager of the pharmacy they work for) first. If you feel too uncomfortable to complain to the pharmacist directly then you can make a complaint to NHS England.

If you are not satisfied with the way the pharmacist/pharmacy has dealt with your complaint then you can take your complaint to the independent Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. Find out more about the NHS complaints procedure.

If you have concerns about a professional's (pharmacist, pharmacy technician or pharmacy owner) ability to practise, then you could contact the General Pharmaceutical Council instead. Fitness to practise refers to the skills, knowledge, character and health a pharmacy professional must have to do their job safely and effectively.  For more information visit the General Pharmaceutical Council.


The 28 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

R_Durden said on 24 May 2015

Reading the previous comments it seems that pharmacy receives little respect. Almost all healthcare is based on medicine and pharmacists are experts in this field. The body is complicated, drugs are complicated and all are potential dangerous. If a pharmacist is asking you questions it is out of necessity to ensure their are no interactions with other medications or no underlying health problems that will lead to the medicine causing adverse effects.

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PAmandaH said on 20 May 2015

I wonder why we are now being questioned by pharmacists before buying medication?

If I want the view of a pharmacist I will ask, but, as a rule, I don't want to discuss health issues in a shop before I can purchase a box of aspirin.

They have the right to ask, of course, but refusal to answer should not result in their decision not to supply the product requested. This is happening more often and, I'd suggest, it's not a role many of the public want the pharmacist to play.

This surveillance appears to have crept up on us, and I for one, would like to opt out. I find it intrusive and patronising.

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Tubith said on 25 April 2015

What is it with all the questions asked by a pharmacist? I am an adult and I take full responsibility for my health and my medicines. I always tell them I am picking up the medicine for a friend and therefore cannot answer. They always sell the medicine to me. This cartel of medicine needs breaking up to service the public better, reduce the cost of medicine and free up the overall supply of medicine.

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Thirty Three said on 28 December 2014

I am upset with my local Boots Pharmacy since the introduction of the WebMD electronic prescription initiative commenced.

I believed that my personal/ medical data came under the Data Protection Act and that it could not be used for another purpose other than that for which it was given.

I was asked repeatedly if I wanted Boots to collect my prescriptions and I have repeatedly said no, because I live next door to my G.P and I like my routine of meeting and talking to all of the people on my prescription pathway. I have developed excellent helpful, positive, relationship with my Boots staff and I do not want to loose this, as it helps my condition.

A few months ago when I had finished my consultation with my G.P she said that it was showing on her clinical computer screen that boots chemist were picking up my prescriptions. I was shocked that a commercial pharmaceutical company could surreptitiously arrange to put something on my G.P records without my knowledge and consent. I was shocked, felt the integrity of my confidentiality had been breached, exploited, and violated. My G.P was unable to remove it from her computer screen but had to work around it. She asked me if I had signed consent with boots and I said no.

I went to my local boots and it seems that this is now common practice and so they did not initially see the problem until I became very upset and threatened to complain to the ICO and PALs. Pharmacy assistant compassionately sorted it out so that it would not happen again. Obviously this was an over reaction and I did go back and apologise. The next month when I saw my G.P there were no problems, and I was happy that it was sorted out.

This month December Boots have done it again. They have told my G.P Practice that I have agreed for them to pick up my medications without my knowledge and consent. I am too upset with boots company to go and collect my prescription. I feel helpless to sort it out.

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Bidgooder said on 18 October 2014

Why don't pharmacists spoend more time improving their stock and supply levels of medicines instead of always asking if they can review my medications? There is a 25% the pharmacy has my drugs available. Another 25% of the time they simply tell me there are supply problems and they cannot get hold of them for another 1 month / 2 months.

The pharmacy industry is letting patients down.

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keep popping them said on 07 August 2014

Asda pharmacy Carcroft
Excellent service! The pharmacist wanted to have a word with us regarding our prescribed drugs (which is annoying and we always decline because the drugs are prescribed by our Doctor and the hospital consultants and we do trust them). Shame he couldn't fulfil the prescription because of alleged non supply by the pharmaceutical company. We were informed that they hadn't been able to get the drug for 1 month, 2 months or 3 months they couldn't be sure. They also could not give us the full amount of one of the other drugs that were on the prescription. This happens regularly. It is a bit hilarious that they want to discuss our taking drugs when they haven't actually given then to us. Can the pharmacists stop asking to discuss our drugs, we don't like it? Just concentrate on getting a better supplier.

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andrewpeters said on 14 July 2014

I do get fed up with some pharmacists when getting my regular prescription for asthma..

I use various places and more often than not I get asked "Can I speak to you about your medication?"

Well.. actually no you cant. I am 52 years old and a life long asthmatic who has been perfectly capable of controlling my ailment.

This happned to me today at my local sainsburys in house pharmacy. Having gone back to pick up the meds the pharmacist asked me if I"... had a few minutes". I said "What for?" he said "To speak to you about your medication" I politely told him "I dont need to speak about my medication.. thank you" He looked quite taken back.. and gave me the meds.

Well.. sorry.. but just do not even think about asking me!

The only time I would consider speaking about my medication is if I had a specific question. I really do not expect to be accosted every time I pick my prescription up.

My asthma is between myself and my GP who signs the prescription.

Ok.. I know that perhaps the pharmacist is only trying to be helpful but I now believe there should be an 'opt out' on the prescription that stops the pharmacist from approaching the customer to "Speak about the medication"

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Crimson_chin said on 24 March 2014

I went to my local pharmacy this morning with a private prescription. The attendand tootk the prescription to the pharmacist and they kept talking for a couple of minutes. The attendant came back and told me they did not have it. I asked them if they could order it for me, they replied "No". Apart from a very unfriendly service and the abruptness they did not offer me any alternative, did not tell me to go somewhere else. Why did they not want to order it for me? Any views?

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Ae0lus said on 12 December 2013

Why do pharmacists still sell lollies? Do they not see the irony of selling sweets next to toothpaste? Profit before care?

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Beit Zaid said on 06 November 2013

If I cannot find a medicine in the UK would my pharmacist recommend I seek it from another EU country through their pharmacy services? Syndol is no longer available in the UK but is available in other countries, as it was freely available in the UK until recently.

I understand the potential dangers of ordering medicine or anything else for that matter over the internet however this seems the only possible route for some treatments which are not unsafe but are not licensed in the UK for over the counter sales.

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Choykov72 said on 27 October 2013

Although pharmacists are regulated half of the GPhC appointed council members are ... Pharmacists. The GPhC is regularly criticised for its fitness to practice investigations which seem to be more supportive to offending pharmacists and others in the profession than the public would be.

I would have more confidence in pharmacy work if they were members of a patient led organisation or at least a consumer watchdog organisation.

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wellnesspharmacist said on 22 September 2013

Just a bit of info
Pharmacists are strongly regulated by GPhC and Health Authorities (Wales) PCTs (England). Any complaints can be directed to them.
Pharmacies have to be profit making enterprises but are no different to GP surgeries even hospitals in that respect. The NHS contracts a limited number of pharmacies to ensure even spread and best value.
Personally I agree with the lollipops and non-medicine items, and have focussed strongly on patient services and healthcare only.
I'm sure most pharmacies are trying their best- shop around if you don't feel are getting the best service, you are free to take your NHS prescription anywhere in the UK

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wellnesspharmacist said on 22 September 2013

Hey, a little disappointing to hear some of the negative comments here, but every profession I guess has its challenges.
I'm an independent pharmacy contractor to the NHS, although any business has to be profit-making (e.g. your GP practice) hopefully the majority of pharmacists will be trying their best. Multiple pharmacies may have a different feel to Independents who have to try and outshine on customer service to compete, but there are many corporate colleagues I respect highly

Personally I strongly agree with the views on lollipops and non-medicines. This was something I changed in my business Medicine Centre back in 2004, so we could focus solely on Healthcare and not be distracted by all the peripheral stuff.

Regarding Pharmacists being checked, we have a stringent rule making body the GPhC and have regular audits from them and also our Health Authorities in Wales (PCTs in England) Complaints about NHS services can be made to them and are acted on.
Hope the above info is useful!

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Pommy said on 23 November 2012

Five weeks ago, I went to a pharmacy to get a prescribed medicine. They only had one of the four required and gave me a slip to come back later.

When I went back today they said that they could not find my medicines and I was asked, in the kind of voice used when talking to an imbecile, if I had already collected them ( in spite of still having the reclaim slip ).

Then I was told, in the same derogatory tone, that they must have delivered them to me. I was fuming at this stage but agreed to go and check with my lodgers as I felt on the point of shouting at her.

I had specifically asked to return to collect them because I am aware of the problems of deliveries going missing. They they treat me like that!

Because its a private profit making company I cannot make any meaningful complaint to them.

They also sell sugar lollies for 20p to encourage children to eat food to decay their teeth. I am sure those are sold for the profit it generates and not for any health reason!

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labradoodle said on 16 October 2012

My husband received a prescription from an A&E department late last night, the hospital Pharmacy closed at 5pm. He took the prescription to our local Pharmacy and they refused it stating he had to return to the hospital that gave it to him. Surely this cannot be right. He is in agony and unable at present to get his precription.

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Vigiarr said on 01 September 2012

This article implies you can simply walk in to your local chemist and see a pharmacist. It even states you do not need to make an appointment.

Whenever I have asked to see the pharmacist I have been told they are either out at a meeting, at lunch, or otherwise busy or engaged. I am simply told to call back later or try elsewhere.

The same attitude of "call back later" applies to collecting prescriptions. Do the NHS monitor service levels with pharmacies in the community like they do with other NHS services?

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User694546 said on 02 July 2012

In reply to gunters misleading comments about pharmacist ethics.

Cough syrups were designed to relive the symptoms associated with the cough not treat the underlying causes. For some people it does help whilst for others not so much. A pharmacist will never happily sell you a product that is unsuitable or detrimental for you. Some people even after knowing that the product might not work still insist on purchasing the product because they just want to do something about it. How many times have you heard patients demanding antibiotics for colds even though it has no effect?

Pharmacist do not mislead patients about any medicines they sell.

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Guntur said on 11 March 2012

I do not understand how pharmacist can be experts in medicine and yet still happily sell patients and shoppers non-medicines like cough mixtures and linctus which have no good evidence for their use in those with a cough.

Surely it is unethical for a pharmacist to sell products which do no good. Perhaps they are just influenced by the profit they make on the sale?

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wbrown said on 08 February 2012

My Pharmacist is superb! I consult him more often than i do my GP, as i have known him for a long time and trust him. Contrary to some of the above comments, my pharmacist does not just stick a label on a box! They use their intensive 5 years worth of training to clinically assess all my prescriptions. He is also very knowedgeble about a wide range of health conditions.
Only a pharmacist has the unique clinical skills to assess the suitability of medicines for a particular patient by taking into account the dose, medical condition, patient characteristics (age, allergies, long term conditions etc..) and of course the many drug interactions that exist.

we are so lucky to have such dedicated healthcare professional available on every high street. Thank you Pharmacists!

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Eggham said on 08 November 2011

Although pharmacists can offer advice it is never impartial, They always have a retail / business owner hat as well as a professional advice hat. They wear them both at the same time and I often find them advising me to buy non-prescription items alongside the prescription mediicines.

This article does not explain how the pharmacy industry does nothing to avoid this conflict of interest between good medical advice and maximising profits.

Why do retail sales staff wear clinical overcoats in pharmacies anyway? It is all very confusing and a reason why many people like me always go to see a GP who has no financial interest in selling medicines.

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Refriedn said on 07 November 2011

Although pharamcists are well trained they offer poor value and poor customer service.

1) They can refuse to provide medicine including contraceptives due to their own personal beliefs, which are allowed to surpass those of treating patients.
2) Most pharmacies do not offer any appointment system. Although pharmacists are local in a community the need for a (sick) customer to simply return at a more covenient time is driven by the requirements of the pharmacist not the patient.
3) They encourage medicines to be kept on the Prescription-Only Monopoly rather than freely available as over-the-counter or through super-markets, internet and cheaper retail distribution channels. This ensures their patients pay higher prices to keep their retail shops open and profits high.
4) Many do not have English as a first of even second language and are difficult to understand.

It would be helpful to record the average earnings of a pharmacist if their years of training are promoted on comments.

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User9999 said on 22 August 2011

Retail and hospital pharmacists both come out of university with identical qualifications and it's the training and experience they get after this which determines their particular expertise.
Hospital pharmacists usually have greater clinical knowledge owing to the clinical diploma they have to undertake as part of their training. Some retail pharmacists also do a clinical diploma, however, it isn't considered routine.
Retail pharmacists focus more heavily on retail business management, diagnosing and treating minor ailments and act as triage in the community, saving doctors time by avoiding unnecessary appointments. This is a service which costs the NHS nothing as it is funded by the private sale of medicines.
They are also essential to regulate the distribution of prescription medicines and pharmacy only medicines.
They are now expanding the NHS services they provide to include sexual health screening and treatment, addiction treatment, smoking cessation, vaccinations, disease screening (diabetes, chlamydia, hepatitis). As this is a part of the profession still in development, service provision can be patchy and usually depends on the support of the local health authority (primary care trust).
So rather than having time on their hands to test blood pressure because their job is so easy, they are actively seeking to expand the healthcare services they provide to the general public both privately and NHS commissioned.
Much like doctors and nurses in general practice.

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cukoo22 said on 11 April 2011

Dear User533684,

I am sorry that you appear to have a poor impression of pharmacists.

Although this page doesn't express it clearly, and chemist22 did a much better attempt at clarifying, a pharmacist is far more that a dispenser who checks if a label is printed properly.

Pharmacists undergo 5 years of intensive training and examination (following A-levels) before they can be considered a junior pharmacist. This is only one year less that a doctor, and 2/3 years more than a nurse and other professions. This time is not spent learning how to read a computer screen.

The majority of the 4 year masters degree is spent learning about the chemistry, pharmacokinetics and the mechanism of action of drugs. There is such a heavy focus on how the medicines actually work because this is hardly covered at all during a doctor or nurses education. The pharmacists role is to support the prescribing of appropriate drugs by supporting their healthcare colleagues. It is impossible for you doctor to know everything, and they rely very heavily during their hosptial induction years on the expertise of the ward pharmacist.

A pharmacist is the prescriber's (doctor or dentists) safety net. They make sure the medication prescribed will not harm you. On average a pharmacist has to correct about 10% of the prescriptions they receive in a community pharmacy and about 50% in hospital. Many countless lives have been saved by the actions of the pharmacist and it saddens me that their skills are so under appreciated.

When your local pharmacist is double checking your prescription, it is not to make sure the computer did it correctly, but to be sure there are no interactions with your other medication; with your medical condition; or with your body in general. They are also deciding if this is the safest medication for you, and will often call your GP to discuss any concerns.

I hope that reassures you that a pharmacist is far more that a 'technician'.

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Pepsicle said on 02 March 2011

It would be helpful to see a list of services available at local, community pharmacies on the NHS choices website. It would also be patient focussed to advise which parmacists opt out of offering medicines due to personal beliefs. If I need emergency contraception I do not want to find out that the pharmacist serving me refuses to issue it on ethical grounds if I can avoid it. At the moment it is trial and error. I accept pharmacists are highly educated but they seem to miss out of patient and customer service and care.

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User533684 said on 01 March 2011

Dear LadyMarm.

A pharmacist can best be described as a technician involved in the health care process. Best way to think of this is when a Healthcare professional ie Dentist/GP prescribes your medicine, the GP is using all the medical training and experience to hand to find the best treatment. The GP is therefore your medical expert. Now when you visit the pharmacy, it is often the dispenser who is will prepare your medicine and the pharmacist as a final check will check the medicine against what they have on their computer & get the label ready for the patients' ease.

Nurses are trained slightly different in that their knowledge of the actual disease and patient care is superior to a pharmacist. A pharmacist is however the best placed person to check your medicines & dosages & if you are ever unsure you can always obtain a BNF (british national formulary) or use reputable sites on the net.

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L6000 said on 01 January 2011

I was hoping to see if not a direct link to information about which is the duty chemist locally on any day, then at least information about where I can find out. Tried to ring NHS direct but there is a massive wait and a four hour ring back time. Would be extremely helpful to have this information online.

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chemist22 said on 04 December 2010

Dear LadyMarm, All pharmacists are required- via the new Pharmacy Contract- to offer a set minimum of services.
Following this, the additional services a pharmacist offers is dependent upon the company for whom they work.
Healthcare professionals, i.e- pharmacists, doctors, nurses, dentists are all required to be highly educated and trained- represented by holding the respective qualifications and membership to respective professional bodies. The difference lays in the fact that the pharmacist is the drug expert- the Master of Pharmacy degree is heavily science orientated alongside healthcare training and covers a huge variety of subjects to deep extents- meaning we can deal with a greater variety of situations to a nurse and when it comes to medications and their usage- to a doctor. We know how the drugs are made, what they look like at a molecular level and therefore how they affect the body as we have a deep understanding of physiology. We know how each drug interacts with others and when and how to take properly to get the best results. We know, based on clinical evidence, which drug is best for each medical condition and at what doseage and for how long- along with what needs to be monitored. You pharmacist takes all of this into account when dispensing your prescription. You will find that many pharmacists hold further qualifications and are specialists within specific areas such as diabetes. The main point is that all pharmacists have a minimum educational and training standard- which is extremely high. We have to keep up to date with new knowledge via continuing professional development- and we are assessed once a year on this. It is up to the pharmacist if he or she wants to further their training in certain areas following this.

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LadyMarm said on 28 November 2010

How are patients suppose to know which pharmacy offers which service. It is not listed on the NHS choices website. Is there a minimum standard of services available, as with GPs or can each pharmacy shop choose? This page only lists services that MAY be available. It would be helpful to know the servies which ARE provided at my local pharmacy. I would also like ot know if pharmacists have different qualification levels like nurses and doctors or are they all trained to the same standard. Are there any specialists in community pharmacies or are they all the same?

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Page last reviewed: 17/11/2015

Next review due: 17/11/2017

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Media last reviewed: 18/06/2015

Next review due: 18/06/2017