The seven million Australians living outside the capital cities are well served by their local community pharmacy. Some two in three regional Australians have a pharmacy within just a few kilometres of their home. For others, the pharmacy is often high on their list when they go to town.
It means community pharmacy is an accessible touchpoint for personal health care. From filling a prescription to restocking daily health and beauty needs, and even buying a gift – the pharmacy is there, open, accessible.
Close to their patients, community pharmacists are hearing deep concerns over affordability of medicines, and this must be elevated on the healthcare agenda for 2022.
New research has found more than one in 10 people are going without prescribed medicines because they could not afford them.
As Pharmacy Guild of Australia National President, Professor Trent Twomey, has flagged: ‘What this means is that there is no real universal access to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) which is the foundation of our health system.’
More than 20 per cent of people aged from 18 to 64 describe prescription medication as unaffordable.
‘Most people in this age group are general patients, who are paying up to $42.50 every month for each PBS medicine they are prescribed since the co-payment went up again on 1 January. At the current rate of increase, these Australians will find themselves paying nearly $50 a month for some PBS medicines in the next five years,’ Professor Twomey said.
As we enter 2022, COVID-19 risks remain high.
COVID-19 does not respect boundaries – geographical boundaries, social boundaries or whatever. Remote communities are among our most vulnerable.
In July last year, government authorities invited pharmacies into the vaccination effort against COVID-19.
From a careful, staged rollout, pharmacy vaccinations against COVID-19 grew to three million – delivered right across the Australian land mass – by Christmas Eve.
With pharmacies open while Australia took its Christmas break, this grew rapidly – to four million by 18 January.
In the first week of February, COVID-19 vaccinations through community pharmacies passed five million.
This will continue to accelerate as people seek their booster doses.
In a few short weeks, official recommendations on the minimum gap between second and booster dose were dropped from six months to five, then four and now three months minimum gap.
And add to this the huge efforts by Australian authorities to expand the vaccination options. Pharmacies had days’ not weeks’ notice in January to express interest to deliver the new Novavax, for individuals over 18 years old who have not received their primary course vaccinations.
Then from 10 January this year, pharmacies began the newly-authorised vaccinations for young Australians aged five to 11 years.
All this has placed added pressure on community pharmacies right across regional Australia but, as always, they have lifted and are meeting demand with the least possible delays for patients.
As a result, Australia is returning to at least a ‘new normal’ – supply chains are being restored, offices are reopening, travel resuming and restrictions lifting. It’s good news for everyone.
The community pharmacy was there when National Cabinet called them in to deliver the free Rapid Antigen Test scheme for concession card holders. Pharmacies must source their own supplies for the scheme. From a challenging start with stocks scarce, this scheme is building momentum.
The www.findapharmacy.com.au website, an initiative of pharmacies, shows where the nearest RAT stocks are available under the concession scheme.
Pharmacies are also working quickly to source RAT supplies for private sales.
All this effort was reflected in an advertising blitz on Australia Day 2022 by the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.
Professor Twomey said the Guild was taking the opportunity to publicly thank all of Australia’s community pharmacists and pharmacy assistants for their sacrifices, hard work and dedication to their patients and communities.
He said community pharmacists and pharmacy assistants over the past two years have worked under the most extreme circumstances to continue providing medicines, services and advice to their communities.
‘In the face of fires, floods, drought and COVID-19 they have been exemplars of committed and dedicated health professionals,’ he said.
Over the past two years, pharmacists and pharmacy assistants have not taken a backward step. ‘They might be exhausted but they are always there, always committed, always caring,’ Professor Twomey said.
With the efforts of professionals across the health system, it’s hoped regional Australians will now look forward to a more stable and predictable way of life in 2022.