Today, I feel ranty. So ranty, in fact, that I can't even think of a clever title for this post.
Why? because the Mail on Sunday has riled me up with this story about how pharmacies are failing to check exemption statuses of patients. I have been weak, dear readers, and I have allowed the Mail to affect my emotions.
As a pharmacist, my job is to make sure that patients get the right medicines, can use them safely, and have all the information that they need. My ultimate goal is to make sure that my patients stay as healthy as they can for as long as they can, and to improve their quality of life.
My role is not as a fraud investigator, but as a healthcare professional. Its up to the patient to ensure that their exemption is correct and up to date, and its up to me to ask to see proof of exemption, and to train my staff to do likewise. So that's what I- and many, many other pharmacies- do, day in, day out.
What if a patient says they don't have any proof of exemption? I go right ahead and give them their prescription anyway. What am I supposed to do? Say no, sorry, you can't have this inhaler until you go home and get your exemption certificate and bring it back to me. And then what happens when the patient has an asthma attack on the way back to the pharmacy, and without their medication dies? Funnily enough, I suspect newspapers like the Mail on Sunday would just as gleefully report on my failure as a pharmacist to supply life- saving medicine to a patient, and how I was just being evil and money-grabbing instead of thinking about patient care. So we are literally damned if we do, and damned if we don't.
Of course, we can cross the box on the back of the prescription, which means that a small, random selection of prescriptions may be investigated. But this process is pretty murky, and the details of it are unclear to the majority of patients, pharmacists, and pharmacy staff. We get little to no feedback of any cases which are identified as fraud through this method, so it ends up seeming pretty pointless. You spend years and years of dutifully crossing the box, and you never see it making any difference. Perhaps if this process were clearer, and we could more clearly see some results from it, this would spur pharmacists on to continue with the box ticking exercise.
Ever tried to confront someone about the fact that they may be committing fraud? Ever tried to do so over a counter, when you're working on your own and have a queue of about twenty people behind the person you are accusing? A pharmacy is certainly not the correct place for such things to happen in- the personal security of the staff, the workload, and the potential for a patient to have to go without their medicines all mean that its practically something that we cannot do well, without a massive overhaul of staffing and how pharmacies are designed.
I suspect the reporters at the Mail on Sunday haven't ever had to stand on one side of a pharmacy counter whilst a patient asks which of their medicines is the most important because they can't afford to buy all of them. I have, and its heart breaking. Prescription medicines in the UK are £7.85 right now. We're currently in a time when Atos are merrily declaring- sometimes on very shaky grounds- that people who are crippled by a variety of medical and psychiatric problems are fit for work, and are stopping their benefits. There are people out there who cannot afford to pay £7.85 per prescription item, through no fault of their own, and these are the people who are likely to be taking a variety of different medicines. Do I therefore withhold their prescription, or tell them which is the most important drug for them to take and send them off on their way with a sub-therapeutic drug regime that is going to make them even less able to work and find means of paying for their medicines? I can't imagine the hurt and shame that a patient must have to go through to admit that they can't afford their medicines, but I know I don't want to have to put an already unwell patient through that.
I've had a friend worry how he was going to pay for his prescriptions because of problems with his benefits, problems that he had no control over and were to do with mistakes at Atos. Do you know what I told him? Go to your usual pharmacy, tick the box, and don't say anything. I know that's wrong, but given the options: he becomes very unwell vs a small risk he gets a fine of £100 at a later date when he would hopefully be able to pay it, I'm sorry dear readers, but I'm always going to opt for the former. That may be, as the Mail so charmingly puts it "scandalously careless" of me, but it doesn't feel like it. It feels like I am caring for my friend's health, and that's my job, and my personality. What would feel "scandalously careless" would be to force someone with no income through no fault of their own to choose between food or essential drugs.
Forgive me if I would rather give patients their drugs and keep them as healthy as I can. Do forgive me if I put the quality of my patients' lives ahead of the fear of prescription fraud, which I can do very little about anyway.
This whole system of exemptions and payment is outdated and needs an overhaul. In the meantime, branding pharmacists as lazy debt collectors and desperate patients as robbing prescription cheats doesn't help. As a healthcare professional, my need to provide vital medicines to my patients transcends petty demonisation by a scaremongering newspaper.
Here's an extract of the Mail on Sunday's report:
"Dr Clare Gerada, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, called for a ‘fundamental review of prescriptions’. But a spokesman for the Royal College of Pharmacists said it was ‘not their job to police the Government’s prescription exemption system’, adding: ‘Guidance is very clear that pharmacists must put the clinical needs of a patient first, and not deny someone access to lifesaving medicines because they haven’t got proof of exemption."
Interesting, really, given that the "Royal College of Pharmacists" doesn't actually exist. This is lazy, crappy reporting, if they don't even bother to get the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's name right. You can read how the RPS have responded to this article here. Its a perfectly reasonable response, and in my opinion reflects what actually happens in daily practice.