The role of pharmacists needs to change

It is time to consider using pharmacies to ease the burden on GPs, says Senator Colm Burke, who explains that the pharmacists’ role needs to change
The role of pharmacists needs to change

"We have seen increasing calls for pharmacies to be given capacity to run a ‘minor ailments scheme’ which would allow pharmacists to treat medical card patients who are presenting with such minor illnesses and ailments," so says Senator Colm Burke.

OUR health service is undergoing significant change, moving towards a more community-based model of care but we could be missing a simple and effective change when it comes to the role of pharmacists.

At the moment, our GP is the first point of call for people who have a medical card when they need treatment for minor ailments — things like hay-fever, skin conditions and coughs. This is simply the way the system is set up.

Medical patients are entitled to the State covering the cost of their medication and a prescription charge of €2 applied up to a limit of €20. For people over 70 the cost is €1.50 up to €15.

But we have seen increasing calls for pharmacies to be given capacity to run a ‘minor ailments scheme’ which would allow pharmacists to treat medical card patients who are presenting with such minor illnesses and ailments.

The Irish Pharmacies Union argue that this could save almost a million GP consultations per year and free up some €22m worth of capacity or almost 100 full-time GPs.

A trial ran in 2016 in four towns saw a small pick-up and the Health Minister, Simon Harris, has said that more trialing will be necessary to evaluate such a scheme.

But at a time when GPs are struggling with waiting lists and, simultaneously, Sláintecare reform is getting underway which will truly transform our health service for generations to come, now could be an ideal time to consider giving pharmacists more capacity to treat public patients.

At the heart of Sláintecare is development of a more population-based and integrated approach to service planning and care delivery which will facilitate “the right care, in the right place, at the right time, by the right person”.

This reform will have positive implications for patient experience, health outcomes and health system sustainability.

It is a programme of transformation that has been supported by people of all parties and none in the Oireachtas.

With the welcome changes that are already being rolled out. For example, here in Cork we have seen funding allocated for investment in the Mercy Hospital which will add 40 beds and other projects, including Urgent Ambulatory Care and Virtual Ward for the Older Person.

At this time of change I believe we need to continue to look at innovative ways we can improve health care for people.

Pharmacists play a valuable role in our local communities, they are a point of contact and reassurance for our elderly, for parents and for all of us.

If there is scope to strengthen this role in a way that compliments our GP service I believe we should look at it.

Such a scheme could see public patients get the help they need much quicker and more easily by taking the need to make and attend a GP appointment out of the equation.

This would not lessen the rights of Medical Card holders who would still be entitled to attend the GP for any reason they wish.

Private patients who need over-the-counter medication for issues such as coughs or headaches are able to visit their local pharmacy and get the help they need without attending a GP.

It is my belief that public patients should have this equality of access.

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