New restrictions on pain killers will put more pressure on Canberra GPs amid waits of up to one year to access the hospital's specialised unit, advocates warn.
The president of Pain Support ACT, Margaret McCulloch, supports the move to restricting codeine-based pain-killers, such as Nurofen-plus and Panadeine, to prescription only from February 1. The move will force people to make a doctors' appointment for the pain pills.
But Ms McCulloch said while Canberra Hospital had a good dedicated pain management unit for people with chronic pain, it was under-resourced, and people had to wait nine months to a year to get in.
"If you're in significant pain, that is a shocking thing to discover. It has improved over the last few years but it is completely unacceptable for patients in Canberra," she said.
Australian Medical Association ACT president Steve Robson said management of chronic pain should be a "national priority".
"I certainly call on [ACT Health] Minister [Meegan] Fitzharris to look carefully at the options for Canberra for patients with chronic pain," he said.
The prescription regime applies to Panadeine, Nurofen Plus and Mersyndol and some cold and flu medications that contain codeine.
Ms McCulloch, whose support group is run by volunteers, said the move was "unfortunate but understandable" because they were drugs of dependency. Patients needed a multi-discplinary approach to manage chronic pain but options were difficult to find.
"There are some really good people in the ACT, they just have to be found," she said.
Canberra pharmacist Magna Sadkowsky, from Lyneham Capital Chemist, said she had not seen any evidence of people stockpiling ahead of the change, but customers were more likely to buy an extra packet of medications as a "just in case" measure.
The switch to prescriptions had been a good chance to discuss pain management with customers.
"It's informing our patients and ensuring they have plans in place and making sure they have pain management strategies for the up-scheduling," she said.
"It's consumer awareness, getting them to discuss how they are managing their pain, discussing exploring other pain management strategies, whether it be alternative medications, complimentary medicines, whether it be physiotherapy and discussing things with their doctors."
It hadn't all been smooth-sailing. Some customers were worried about the cost and time to get their medication.
"We actually get a very mixed response, some people who are very passionate with their frustration and anger that this is happening because they feel they are managing their pain in the best way," Ms Sadkowsky said.
"[Recently] we had a really upset lady who said it would cost her a lot out of pocket to see her doctor and it is hard to get in to see her doctor."
Pharmacist Elise Apolloni, at Capital Chemist Wanniassa, understood the decision, but had concerns for her customers. She also noticed people buying extra medication, but said she had not seen stockpiling.
"I don't like seeing people in pain but I want to make sure there are effective options I can provide over the counter," she said.
Ms Apolloni's customers werer also worried about waiting times to see doctors in the ACT.
"I do know of patients in my community who have commented that they may find it harder to get in to see their GP," she said.
The decision to switch to prescriptions for codeine was made by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in late 2016 because of the risk of dependency and death associated with misuse, and doubts about effectiveness of codeine to treat pain.
Doctors and pharmacists say codeine-based medications aren't the best option for treating ongoing chronic pain, and the decision should be used for people to consider how they manage their pain.
Dr Robson said the medical association supported the changes.
"The wellbeing of patients is the primary concern," he said.
"We support the [Therapeutic Goods Administration] decision. It's based on very good evidence and it's in the best interests of patients."
He rejected the suggestion it was difficult to access a GP and bulk-billing in the ACT, saying while it had been a problem in the past, more GPs were available now.
"I don't think there's a problem with people accessing high-quality GP services," he said.