GPs want general practice to get priority over pharmacy in the distribution of flu vaccines, saying pharmacy advertising is “misleading” patients
In a statement criticising the way in which the 2020 flu vaccine was rolled out, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners has called on the Government to change the way the vaccines are distributed, saying that 55% of clinics did not get enough stock.
The statement follows a significant spike in demand for the flu vaccine this year, with Australians urged to be vaccinated so as to avoid strain on the health system caused by COVID-19, as well as the chance of “doubling up” with both respiratory infections at once.
The RACGP says that in an April 2020 survey of more than 1,100 GPs from every state and territory in Australia, 55% reported that they were unable to access enough stock to provide flu vaccinations to their patients.
RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon said many patients experienced a delay in getting their flu vaccine this year, which he called “unacceptable”.
“The problem was never that there was shortage of the flu vaccine,” he said. “The Government secured enough of the special flu vaccine for over 65s, who are more vulnerable, for everyone in the country, and we commended them for this.
“The problem is with the distribution of the flu vaccine and it has been a problem for a long time. Every year we see the same issue – the vaccine comes too slowly to GP clinics and we don’t get enough of it for our patients.
“This year we saw increased demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We were glad to see people heeding our advice – the RACGP and other medical bodies advised people to get their vaccine earlier than usual to prevent the double whammy of the flu and COVID-19 and reduce pressure on the health system.
“We could not have anticipated this pandemic but we learned a big lesson from it when we saw the impact it had on patients getting their flu shot – the cracks in the distribution system gaped open and many people had to wait far too long.”
The RACGP is calling for the Government to move on three issues:
- To improve supply and demand modelling to better estimate patient demand in each practice, and allocate adequate stock.
- To prioritise “adequate” supply of the flu vaccine to general practice ahead of pharmacies. The RACGP says that this would ensure access and better health outcomes for patients, and that “only GPs have the medical training required to safely administer vaccines and manage adverse reactions”.
- Public communication “to ensure patients get the right vaccine at the right time and don’t unnecessarily pay for a private vaccine they could have received free from their general practice under the National Immunisation Program”.
The GPs say that “in most state and territories vulnerable patients need to go to a GP to obtain the publically-funded flu vaccine”.
“The increase in pharmacy advertising is misleading patients – resulting in patients paying for the vaccine unnecessarily, getting their vaccine too early in the year, and vulnerable patients not getting the most effective vaccine,” says the RACGP.
Leaders at the Pharmacy Guild expressed disappointment in the RACGP’s call to action.
“It’s a bit rich for the RACGP president to call for prioritisation of general practice over community pharmacies for distribution of influenza vaccines where it was pharmacies who continued to turn up and keep their doors open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Victorian branch president Anthony Tassone.
“As useful as telehealth can be for delivery of care – not even the best GP can offer a vaccination over the phone or video conference.
“Rather than acknowledging the important contribution that pharmacies made in helping increase vaccination rates in the community, Dr Nespolon went back to the tired ol’ RACGP playbook of criticism and undermining of professional colleagues.”
Mr Tassone said that it was clear that the public was not listening to the RACGP’s thoughts about where they should be vaccinated.
Earlier this month medication technology platform MedAdvisor revealed a year-on-year increase of more than 300% for flu vaccinations administered in pharmacies.
The Government should not listen to the RACGP’s call either, he said.
“The solution is not prioritisation of general practice, the solution is greater access to the National Immunisation Program through pharmacies across Australia in all jurisdictions.
“Why should a patient in Wodonga on the Victorian side of the Murray River get access to a NIP vaccine through a community pharmacy but across the river in Albury, NSW they can’t?
“It does not make sense and must change.
“Why should a patient have to pay any out of pocket costs for access to an NIP vaccine through a pharmacy by way of an administration fee, but not through a bulk billing GP or nurse practitioner?
“The flu vaccination is no more magically effective when administered by one competent and suitably trained health professional over another.
“Community pharmacies simply should and must have access to the Medicare rebates for delivery of important health services like vaccinations to help reduce unnecessary out of pocket costs for patients and help further encourage take up of annual vaccination.
“This discussion should not be about prioritisation and trying to pick winners in a perceived battle of delivering patient care.
“We are a team. It must be about offering patient-centred care as a health system in a timely and accessible way that offers patients choice, suits their needs and appropriately minimises their out of pocket costs.”
The Pharmacy Guild at a national level pointed out that Community pharmacies have vaccinated record numbers of patients against influenza this season.
It said that “after so much work and service provided by community pharmacies under difficult circumstances, it is very disappointing to see the RACGP demanding that GP practices be prioritised over pharmacies in the distribution of flu vaccines”.
“When the Australian public are looking for collaboration and co-ordination from health professionals, the RACGP stoops to tawdry turfism,” the Guild said in a statement on Thursday.
“Rather than acknowledging the important contribution that pharmacies have made in helping increase vaccination rates in the community, the RACGP have made it all about them.”
The National President of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, George Tambassis, said: “The fact is, it was community pharmacists and their staff who continued to turn up and keep their doors open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, serving patients face-to-face and providing influenza vaccination.
“It is true that stock ran out in the face of unprecedented demand, but that was the case for pharmacies too, including in regional areas. Indeed, a Guild survey of Member pharmacies in the final week of April found that 64 per cent of pharmacies had run out of their pre-ordered flu vaccine stock.
“Thank goodness more vaccines are being distributed this week and into June,” Mr Tambassis said.
“The way to maximise access to vaccination for all Australians is not prioritisation of general practice, but greater access to the National Immunisation Program (NIP) through community pharmacies across Australia in all jurisdictions,” Mr Tambassis said.
On Wednesday, Health Minister Greg Hunt said that an additional two million flu vaccines will be available from this week, bringing the total number available in 2020 to a record 18 million.