Dispensing during a pandemic

Dispensing has declined by 6%, with the biggest falls in respiratory and asthma-related scripts, new data reveals

A new report released by Australian Institute of Health & Welfare (AIHW) has revealed the impact of the pandemic on prescription rates.  

The report: Impacts of COVID-19 on Medicare Benefits Scheme and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme: quarterly datareleased on 24 September shows prescriptions dispensed declined by over 6% for the quarter ending in March 2021, compared with the same quarter in 2020.

The largest decline rates were reported in respiratory medicines and antimicrobials.   

Among the findings from the first quarter of 2021 were: 

  • There was a decrease of 6.3% in the number of prescriptions dispensed, from 79.1 million to 74.1 million. This decrease was likely impacted by the high demand for medicines in the first quarter of 2020, which resulted in pharmacies and wholesalers reporting medicine shortages in March. This change in consumer behaviour was likely a result of stockpiling influenced by the introduction of restrictions nationally to contain the rise of COVID-19 cases.
  • In anticipation of medicine shortages, pharmacists were required to limit dispensing of prescription medicines to prevent unnecessary stockpiling. Consequently, prescription volume decreased by 6.4% in the second quarter of 2020 (71.9 million) compared to the same quarter of 2019 (76.9 million).    
  • The decrease in the first quarter of 2021 was most significant for the group of medicines used to treat respiratory related conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and the group of anti-infectives consisting predominantly of antibiotics and antivirals.

In total, the number of prescriptions dispensed for respiratory medicines fell 24.1% from 3.8 million to 2.9 million, while there was a 23.1% drop for anti-infectives prescriptions from 6.5 million to 5.0 million.    

However, for the year ending in March 2021 the pandemic “had a small impact on PBS script volume with a 3% drop….. compared to 2020”, the AIHW report said.

For this 12 months compared to March 2021:    

  • There was a 3.1% decrease in the number of prescriptions dispensed, from 317.9 million to 308.1 million. As noted in the comparison of the first quarter of 2021 to 2020, this decrease was due to a lower prescription volume in the first quarter of 2021 and the second quarter of 2020 compared to the same quarters the year before. 
  • The number of prescriptions dispensed for anti-infectives was consistently lower compared to the same quarter in the previous year. This decrease represents a decline of 30.2% from 28.2 million to 19.7 million. The decline in antimicrobial utilisation could be associated with COVID-19 measures such as physical distancing and improved hand hygiene practices leading to a lower incidence of some infectious diseases.

The report noted that the General schedule is the largest program for medicines dispensed through community pharmacies. For this there was a 3.2% decrease in prescription volume from 310.2 million to 300.4 million.

“The pandemic appears to have had little effect on consumer access to medicines from community pharmacies,” the authors concluded.

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