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Pharmacies' medical advice plans spark controversy

Pharmacists will begin providing GP-like advice to reduce their reliance on shrinking dispensary income and competition from discount chains.

Sigma Pharmaceuticals, which owns the chemist brands Amcal and Guardian, this week launched a ‘‘structured professional services’’ program, which in some cases will lead to customers not having to see a GP.

But Australian Medical Association president Steve Hambleton warned that pharmacists would be breaching their expertise, saying they had different training and skill sets to GPs.

Sigma chief executive Mark Hooper said the program would formalise the ‘‘terrific heritage’’ pharmacists giving customers advice about a range of health care issues.

He said he hoped it would not only increase customer loyalty to Amcal and Guardian branded pharmacies, but also keep people out of more expensive forms of health care at a time when the federal government is searching for cuts in the sector.

‘‘Pharmacies are in a terrific place to be able to provide that structured health care advice,’’ Mr Hooper said. ‘‘What we are trying to do is provide structure around that.’’


The government has sliced the margins that pharmacists can charge for medicine under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which Mr Hooper said had wiped $400 million to $500 million off Sigma’s revenue in the past three years.

He said this prompted pharmacists to reconsider their business models to away from a heavy reliance on dispensing medicines and look to value add through providing health care advice.

‘‘The government has clearly signalled that one: it’s going to try to reduce the amount that it pays for drugs, and two: what it pays people throughout the supply chain to ultimately deliver that to the customer.’’

Mr Hooper said three pharmacists had drafted the program.

He said initially pharmacist would help people manage chronic diseases like diabetes. A pharmacist could assist someone who has already been diagnosed by a doctor or a refer a customer to a GP, Mr Hooper said.

‘‘If it was something like weight loss management, it would be a case of seeking more direct advice from the pharmacist, and there will other cases when a pharmacist makes a recommendation to go seek additional consultation from a healthcare professional.

‘‘We would say it’s relevant for all parts of Australia because it will hopefully improve health outcomes and keep people out of more expensive forms of healthcare but have a particular relevance in locations that have trouble in attracting a broad range of healthcare professionals, particularly GPs.’’

The expansion of the role of pharmacists comes amid potential competition from supermarkets.

The federal government’s Community Pharmacy agreement bans supermarkets from entering the $16 billion pharmacy market, stipulating that pharmacists must own pharmacies.

But the current agreement is set to expire mid next year and Woolworths renewed its trademark, Pharmacy-in-Supermarket late last year, although a company spokeswoman said at the time there was nothing to read into it.

Mr Hooper said it was ‘‘highly unlikely’’ that supermarkets would be allowed to enter the pharmacy space under the new agreement.

‘‘The Pharmacy Guild was able to obtain undertakings from the Abbott government prior to the election that they would continue to support the community pharmacy model.

‘‘I think it’s highly unlikely that it will change as part of this agreement, which means supermarkets will be kept out of pharmacies until at least 2020.

‘‘But I think that if that did ultimately occur, it just increases the importance of what we have been talking about because it changes the model and makes it more competitive.’’

The AMA’s Dr Hambleton said pharmacists were expert pharmacologists, ‘‘not expert diagnosticians or disease managers’’.

‘‘Just because you know which drug interacts with which other drug doesn’t make you a chronic disease management expert. It’s outside of scope of practice basically,’’ Dr Hambleton said.

‘‘Any one trying to provide medical advice who is not a medical practitioner had better be careful because you’re holding yourself out to be a doctor and that’s not appropriate.

‘‘The health service works best when everyone works best to the limit of their expertise.’’