Doctors oppose pharmacists treating ailments for medical-card holders

Department of Health considers plan to allow pharmacists treat customers, bypassing GPs

Doctors and pharmacists are at odds over a proposal to allow pharmacists to treat minor ailments among medical-card holders.

The Department of Health is currently considering a proposal from the Irish Pharmacy Union for a scheme to allow its members to treat customers directly, without the need to visit a doctor.

The proposal envisages ailments such as dermatitis, headache, migraine and constipation would be covered by the scheme.

Allowing pharmacists to treat minor ailments could save the health service money, take the pressure off overworked GPs and improve the general health of the population, an IPU seminar has heard.


Up to one GP visit in seven and one out of every 12 visits by patients to hospital emergency departments could be dealt with by a local pharmacy, according to UK research cited by IPU president Kathy Maher.

The cost of treating a minor ailment in an emergency department was five times that of a pharmacy, while the cost of dealing with it in a GP surgery was three times greater, she said.

However, the Irish Medical Organisation said pharmacists could not replace general practice, just as general practice wasn’t the solution or alternative to hospital emergency departments.

Ray Walley, chairman of the IMO’s GP committee, said pharmacists could not be seen as a replacement for GPs, and what was classed as a minor ailment by a pharmacist could mask a serious underlying condition.

‘Appropriate setting’

“All patient interactions should be carried out in the appropriate setting, and in 97 per cent of cases that is general practice,” he told The Irish Times. Any pressures on GPs were the result of inadequate resources and “savage” cuts imposed over the past four years, he added.

Prof Colin Bradley of UCC's department of general practice told the seminar there were significant financial and other obstacles to be overcome before GPs agreed to the scheme.

Family doctors could feel it would take “bread out of their mouths” and they needed to be properly resourced to treat chronic diseases.

John Chave, secretary general of the Pharmaceutical Group of the EU, said the rising cost of healthcare across Europe was leading to a reassessment of the role of pharmacists. Ireland was not unique in experiencing a crisis in healthcare services, and pressure to rein in spending would only increase in the years to come.

As well as allowing pharmacists to treat minor ailments, savings could also be made by switching drugs from prescription status to non-prescription. A French study found switching seven ingredients from prescription to non-prescription could save its health service €130 million, he said.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times