Let us keep COVID-19 measures

Undoing pharmacy changes made during the pandemic would be like “throwing away microwaves and the internet,” says one expert

Changes made during the COVID-19 crisis should become permanent and Commonwealth vaccine remuneration should be expanded, say pharmacy leaders.

Emergency measures that were instigated during the pandemic should be kept on a permanent basis, they said on Thursday at the Australian Pharmacy Professional Conference (APP2021).

The conference session on scope of practice changes brought on by COVID-19 saw pharmacy leaders from New Zealand and the US share the gains made in their respective countries during the pandemic.

Doug Hoey, CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association in the US, said the pandemic saw pharmacists able to order and administer COVID-19 tests.

They also received emergency authorisation to independently prescribe COVID-19 vaccines and vaccines for children three years of age and older.

“Paediatricians were not too happy about that, but they were put in a difficult spot saying, ‘so you’re happy, in the midst of a global pandemic, to not have children immunised?’”

His organisation is actively seeking to have the emergency authorisation continue.

“We want [the changes] to become permanent – 100%. We cannot go back as a country. There are millions and millions of patients that have been vaccinated at pharmacies,” said Mr Hoey.

“The access and convenience that patients have to pharmacists – it would be like throwing away microwaves and the internet, to not allow pharmacists to be able to do this.

“There’s no logic that says to take that authorisation away. The testing demand has gone down, but that point-of-care convenience – is it strep, COVID, something else? Being able to walk into a pharmacy… the convenience and the logic behind that is inescapable.”

Anthony Tassone at APP2021.

Victorian branch president of the Guild, Anthony Tassone, agreed that gaining “full scope of practice” for pharmacists involves keeping gains made during the pandemic.

“A real conversation is embedding things that we have had as part of COVID-19, whether it’s a public health emergency order or continued dispensing, making that ongoing and business as usual,” he said at APP2021.

“It’s not even asking for full scope of practice. It’s now asking the government: why take something away from patients that has been really valuable for them and helped keep them out of tertiary care and hospital admissions?”

Mr Tassone said one of the biggest gains so far was negotiating pharmacist administration of the COVID-19 vaccine and the remuneration linked to that.

This is really significant – it’s the first time that pharmacies will receive a direct remuneration for a vaccine.

He said the payment mechanism by the Commonwealth government to community pharmacies to administer the COVID-19 vaccine “should continue into the future for a broader range of vaccinations under the National Immunisation Program (NIP)”.

“This will ensure true equity of access and choice for patients. Why should a patient pay more for the same flu vaccination delivered by a pharmacist who is suitably trained and competent than from a GP?”

However so far the COVID-19 rollout across all community pharmacies has been delayed for another few months due to supply issues, Health Minister Greg Hunt told delegates on Thursday.

Another key measure that the Guild is lobbying to keep is continued dispensing.

“Emergency measures such as the broader range of continued dispensing that have been out in place momentarily during the COVID pandemic have delivered great benefits for patients, in ensuring continuity of care,” said Mr Tassone.

“It not only makes sense to fully utilise the skills and expertise of pharmacists – it’s downright nonsensical to not do so.

“Continued dispensing simply must be made permanently available for patients on the scope of medicines we have for the COVID pandemic, as the reality is that patients may have difficulty accessing their doctor for a prescription at any time – not just during a pandemic or disaster.”

Trent Twomey at APP2021.

Pharmacy Guild national president Trent Twomey said the Australian community pharmacy network was able to connect with overseas pharmacy organisations to build the case for pharmacist full scope of practice.

“[We] were able to pick up a phone, send a message with others overseas: ‘what are you doing with testing?’ And it was President Trump who made the executive order to activate the community pharmacy network – ‘how did that happen, what did that look like?’

“We can look at international examples of other highly developed countries who are doing it and doing it safely.”

As for Australian measures, he emphasised, “All of these things have come in place in response to the pandemic, and we want to ensure that all those [changes] remain a permanent part of the architecture of our system.”

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