‘Long may they prosper!’

Amid a storm of negative media about pharmacy, one writer took a different stance, asking Australians to “cherish the local chemist”

In the leadup to the Seventh Community Pharmacy Agreement, significant commentary on the pharmacy sector has been appearing in the mainstream media, mostly featuring calls to relax or scrap the ownership and location rules, as well as questioning how community pharmacists’ work is funded.

News Corp’s Sue Dunlevy wrote a piece claiming that a “powerful lobby group [the Guild] is pushing up PBS medicines prices” due to “hefty dispensing, administration and handling fees paid to chemists to stick a label on drugs”.

Leading doctors such as Chris Zappala and Tony Bartone have taken to the airwaves to lobby against pharmacy regulation, while Chemist Warehouse’s Mario Tascone, the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores’ Jeff Rogut and former ACCC boss Graeme Samuel have done likewise.

But Monica Dux, author of Things I Didn’t Expect (When I Was Expecting) and columnist for The Age has a different take on pharmacy regulation.

In contrast to modern trends away from “personal, face-to-face service,” Ms Dux says that she felt “disproportionate gratitude” when her local pharmacist was dispensing a new cream for a skin condition, and took time to discuss the script at length with her.

“Instead of simply handing it over while repeating the instructions I’d already been given by my dermatologist, the pharmacist asked me to wait a moment while he checked for side-effects and contraindications,” she writes; quoting the pharmacist as saying, “It’s a new ointment, so I’d like to make doubly sure it’s OK for you”.

“I told a friend about this, wondering whether the pharmacist’s caution meant that he was questioning my doctor’s judgment,” she writes.

“Let’s hope he was, she replied. One of the main reasons pharmacists are there is to stop doctors killing you.”

Ms Dux describes dispensing as a “fine art” and says that it is “no bad thing to have that extra layer of care, provided by a person who compiles and dispenses medicine for a living”.

A recent (unidentified) radio debate had her “shouting at the radio” at calls to remove the restrictions that “help small chemists survive”.

“Perhaps most of us want a country where small, local businesses survive, even if they do need some help and support,” she writes.

“Where service matters, and you can choose to visit a chemist who knows your name. But while the corporate sector throws its weight around, and industry lobbyists shape the debate, what chance is there that this preference will be heard?

“What chance that we’ll get to keep our local pharmacies, those final outposts of rebellion against impersonalisation? Long may they prosper!”

On Twitter, she called community pharmacy “our best barrier to corporate contagion”.


Also in Fairfax Media, reporter Dana McCauley (with Michael Fowler) wrote an overview of the current tension between community pharmacy and other stakeholders such as the AMA.

She quoted Jane Mitchell, co-owner of the 24-hour Ascot Vale Pharmacy in Melbourne, who said she opposed moves by convenience store interests to include pharmacies in the channel.

“I’ve never heard of anything more ridiculous in my life, you know, 7-Eleven are selling slurpees,” Ms Mitchell said.

“We’re not selling fruit and veg here; we’re selling medication where advice needs to be given.”

The article also quoted Guild national president George Tambassis, who argued that international examples such as Boots have seen growing pharmacy closures, because such volume-centred stores are on “every corner”. The current regulations prevent clustering and such closures, he said.

Mr Tambassis argued against free scripts for pensioners, such as those currently being offered by an increasing number of New Zealand pharmacies – including Countdown pharmacies, owned by the Kiwi counterpart of Woolworths – following the introduction of such free scripts by new entrant to that market Chemist Warehouse.

“If there’s no value put on a life-saving medicine, it doesn’t matter how dangerous it is or safe it is, unfortunately you get an unbelievable amount of wastage,” he told Ms McCauley.

“A small co-payment stops that, if they’ve got to put their hand in their pocket. That’s human nature.”

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