Pharmacists were “the second largest health workforce in the country, behind nursing”, Mr Twomey said, with 35,000 pharmacists and 65,000 pharmacy assistants giving patients “unparalleled accessibility”.
The Australian Medical Association is vehemently opposed to any loosening of the restrictions on pharmacists, arguing that allowing them to hand out drugs without a prescription would put patient safety at stake.
AMA president Tony Bartone accused the guild of trying to take advantage of a public health crisis to line its members’ pockets, saying it was “no time to rehash old debates”.
“While the medical profession is getting on with trying to deal with the effects and help the Australian public to prepare for the oncoming epidemic, I’m really troubled by the Pharmacy Guild trying to expand the scope of their business,” Dr Bartone said.
Mr Twomey said the coronavirus outbreak was merely “a good catalyst” for a discussions that Australia should be having anyway, citing difficulties securing a GP appointment in some areas and growing hospital waiting times.
“This is something we should be doing anyway … The health infrastructure is breaking,” he said.
State health ministers have asked the federal government to change the Medicare rules so GPs can bulk bill city-dwelling patients for consultations over Skype, so they can treat people who have self-isolated at home due to suspected coronavirus infection.
Mr Twomey said Australia was an outlier among OECD countries, with Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and a number of European nations allowing pharmacists with the same level of training as Australian pharmacists to dispense common medicines without a script.
“All of the evidence says that community pharmacists are the most accessible component of the primary healthcare system in Australia, with 90 per cent of Australians living within two kilometres of a pharmacy – and over half trade extended hours such as overnight and on weekends,” he said.
He said pharmacists were well placed to help boost vaccination rates and deliver the herd immunity to combat outbreaks such as measles due to their access to the public, with Australians making 451 million pharmacist visits a year.
Pharmacists also want to be able to give travel vaccines in Victoria and NSW. The Queensland government has already agreed to it, along with lowering the age at which they can give flu vaccines to 10, a change also being implemented in Victoria.
Victorian health minister Jenny Mikakos said pharmacists “play a vital role in our health system and their involvement in our response to COVID-19 is being considered as part of our broader contingency planning”.
“We know Victorian families are busy, and don’t always have time to see the GP for their vaccinations,” Ms Mikakos said.
A NSW Health spokeswoman said pharmacists’ scope of practice “is determined by the Pharmacy Board of Australia”.
“Pharmacists can already supply and administer a private market influenza vaccine to people aged 16 years and over,” the spokeswoman said.
“Changes are currently being progressed to allow pharmacists to supply and administer influenza vaccines to people over the age of 10 (from March).
“Supply of any new vaccines would be considered on a case by case basis to provide the most effective public health response.”
A federal Health Department spokesman said it was up to the states to determine “which health professionals are legally authorised to administer scheduled medicines” and that regulation of pharmacists was the responsibility of the Pharmacy Board.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.