Getting the Pill Is Going to Be Much Easier But Doctors Say That’s a Bad Thing

An image showing the contraceptive pill which can now be prescribed by a pharmacist

The contraceptive pill will soon be able to be prescribed by pharmacists across three states as health departments push for greater ease of access. The latest move, which sees clinical trials and pilot programmes expanded in New South Wales and Queensland, with Victoria expected to follow soon, comes amid simmering tensions between doctors and pharmacy staff.

In NSW, more than 900 pharmacies are participating in a 12-month prescribing trial which NSW Health says will make it easier for thousands of women to access a resupply of the pill. The ACT is also participating under the NSW scheme, with five pharmacies in the territory being given the powers.

Women between the ages of 18 and 35 who have had a prescription for an oral contraceptive in the past two years will be able to visit one of these pharmacies for a resupply without having to book a GP consultation.

The changes are allegedly designed to take pressure off GPs and make access easier for people in rural areas, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  However, medical groups claim this is an attempt to water down patient care at the expense of safety.

In Queensland, where a similar but more expansive trial has just got underway, all pharmacies across the state will soon be able to prescribe routine medications. These include the pill as well as asthma medications, nausea medications, skin treatments, and quit-smoking aids, amongst others.

The trial will see Queensland follow similar prescription models to countries like the UK, Canada, and New Zealand, Queensland’s Minister for Health Shannon Fentiman said.

“This will also help address the impacts of workforce shortages and distribution problems, particularly in regional and rural communities,” she added.

“This program is designed to supplement, not replace, existing services and give consumers more choice.”

The contraceptive pill trial follows a successful trial of UTI medication prescriptions by pharmacies. In QLD, more than 10,000 women have received treatment since 2020 without having to visit a doctor during their trial of the prescription changes. More than 1,000 pharmacies in NSW have signed up for a similar trial as well, set to begin next month.

In Victoria, a 12-month statewide pilot of pharmacy prescriptions of both UTI medications and contraceptive pill resupplies will start next month.

Medical Bodies Are Critical of Pharmacy Prescription

Some women have argued that Australia’s prescription and access scheme for oral contraceptives is difficult and expensive, not to mention that they’re taking up a GP appointment they don’t really need to be there for.

However, medical community representative bodies are against the concept of pharmacy prescriptions. The Australian Medical Association has said that, without oversight from a medical practitioner, complications can arise.

The AMA and the Royal Australian College of GPs have launched a campaign called ‘You Deserve More’, saying that governments are undermining patient safety by cutting doctors out instead of funding them. They point to the fact that, in the QLD UTI trial, 64% of patients in the pilot were not followed up with and there were at least 73 cases of more serious issues dismissed as UTIs by pharmacies, including an ectopic pregnancy.

In 2021, the Therapeutic Goods Administration decided against down-scheduling the contraceptive pill, meaning it could be sold over the counter, saying that the ease-of-access benefits did not outweigh the risks to women’s health.

Under the scheme, patients will still be expected to pay for pharmacist prescriptions. Payments will be charged at the same price as a bulk-billed GP visit and medications will be charged at normal rates.

Related: ACT Has Become the First Place to Ban Non-Consensual Intersex Medical Interventions

Related: Medmate: The Cure to Calling Your GP For a Medical Certificate

Read more stories from The Latch and subscribe to our email newsletter.