Community pharmacies in regional, rural and remote areas of Australia are integral to women’s healthcare provision because of their skills, accessibility and familiarity with their patients.
Pharmacist Anna Barwick, who this year was awarded as the New South Wales (NSW) Premier’s Woman of the Year, is based in Walcha, in the Northern Tablelands of NSW. She is the founder of PharmOnline, a 24/7 telehealth advisory service.
She believes one of the strengths of being a rural pharmacist is seeing patients more regularly.
‘We are absolutely critical in helping women with their health, particularly around issues like cervical cancer and health screening, and issues like thrush and other vaginal infections,’ she said.
‘Also, because we see our patients so regularly, we can more easily identify when people are perhaps overusing treatments or not getting the results they need. We are able to act quickly to refer them on when necessary.’
Mrs Barwick said the close relationships rural pharmacies have with their patients is important.
‘A lot of women trust their local pharmacist for their own health care and also their family’s health care,’ she said.
‘A woman’s health is closely aligned to that of her family and the trust they have in us is based around the fact we go out of our way to help.
‘I had an example recently where a young woman brought her daughter in with a rash and I noticed that her baby was coughing.
‘I thought it sounded like asthma, particularly as there were known allergies in the family, so I referred her to have the baby checked and tested. It’s an example of how we are able to provide advice about things that they perhaps didn't come into the pharmacy about initially. We can provide support and reassurance, which strengthens our relationships with our patients.’
Mrs Barwick said there are many unique women’s issues that pharmacists can help with.
‘Apart from the areas I’ve already mentioned, we deal with issues that can include perinatal and postnatal health, managing symptoms post-birth and even common issues in pregnancy like constipation.
‘Mental health is really important too because, again, we are seeing women coming in and asking about it. I think, in our position, we have more contact with rural women than happens in the city, so they talk to us more.
‘It's that closer relationship because of our accessibility that absolutely makes a really big difference for all women.’
Mrs Barwick believes there is even more that pharmacies in these areas can do, and pharmacist prescribing is one initiative that she sees as being able to greatly help women’s health.
‘If we were able to prescribe, particularly for time-sensitive conditions, that would be a great benefit to women,’ she said.
‘Termination of pregnancy is a good example where, if a woman doesn't have a local GP who is registered to prescribe medical termination of pregnancy, the pharmacist should be able to help her to access the medicines she requires, with the support of other health professionals,’ she said.
‘Uncomplicated urinary tract infection is another focus area and the Queensland pilot, which has now been extended permanently, is evidence of how well this service is accepted and also how needed it is, particularly in rural areas where workforce distribution and timely access to prescribers is limited.
‘COVID-19 antiviral provision has also highlighted just how important it is that we can prescribe, particularly for time-sensitive issues, to reduce the burden on primary health care and emergency departments.
‘I would love to see MBS item numbers available for pharmacist consultations – particularly as a telehealth clinician because, at the moment, we just can't help as many people as we would like to without remuneration.
‘A lot of the problem is due to financial restrictions that patients have. But if we could have services covered through the MBS, I think it would make us more accessible and also elevate us as health professionals and the medication experts we are.’