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Take medicines seriously and help Close the Gap

By Rollo Manning - posted Thursday, 17 March 2011

The life expectancy gap for Indigenous Australians could be significantly closed if the same level of pharmaceutical care was applied to those living in remote communities as it is for the rest of the Australian population. The management of chronic diseases requires urgent attention in the provision of prescription medicines - in both monitoring adherence and follow up adjustment of dosing.

Patients attending Aboriginal health services in remote communities are being dispensed medicines with little recording, probably no label and scant advice on what to expect of it. This is the outcome of ten years of bulk supply of Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) medicines from an Approved Pharmacy with no involvement of a pharmacist in the dispensing process. The scheme is costing the Australian taxpayer $40 million a year yet even the Department of Health and Ageing admit there is wastage and an analysis of the Medicare records of payment would not be an accurate evaluation of what is being supplied to patients.

Whilst it will take years for medicine taking to impact on the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians this discreet group of patients with only one supply route should be an ideal target for some primary practice research.


But no!

Researchers admit that the missing element in data with respect to chronic disease management is knowing whether the patient is taking their medicine. Whilst this might apply to the bulk of Australians with chronic diseases, the clinical signs should be there to illustrate the benefits of medicine taking. Otherwise why is the taxpayer paying $8.4 billion a year on the PBS?

With no record of supply and the labelling an unknown quantity – the quality of pharmaceutical care is suspect.

Approved Pharmacies (agents for the supply of PBS medicines) are under no obligation to provide support in the supply on to the patient. That is the job of the Aboriginal health service and done by doctors, nurses and Aboriginal Health Workers with no payment from the PBS to meet the cost of dispensing.

In mainstream PBS supply the Approved Pharmacy is paid $6.42 every time a prescription is dispensed. It is recorded on an IT system that has been paid for and upgraded by the PBS. In remote "drug rooms" there is no such luxury – not even a typewriter for labelling.

Of the $40 million dollar cost to the PBS in this financial year, $10 million will go to the Approved Pharmacy through a combination of a $2.74 handling fee per item and a 15% mark up on the cost of goods. The PBS actually saves $3.68 every time a packet of pills is given to a remote living Aboriginal person. Extended across a year this amounts to $5.52 million and that would employ a lot of pharmacists at Aboriginal health services to add some quality to the supply and give the patients an understanding of what western medicine is all about.


All Australians, when given a prescription by a doctor, take it to a pharmacy for dispensing. They can then ask the pharmacist (always present by law) whatever question they want about that medicine. The salary of that pharmacist is largely contributed to by the PBS through the dispensing fee. For the remote living Aboriginal there is no such practice. There are no pharmacists employed by Aboriginal health services in the NT and only three in the whole of Australia.

This is a shameful situation and one that shows a high degree of discrimination and unacceptable level of unequal opportunity. The National Indigenous Health Equality Council is not interested in this matter claiming that it does not fall within its terms of reference. The Pharmacy Guild is interested in its members being viable entities while NACCHO (the Aboriginal health peak body) is overwhelmed by the Pharmacy Guild into thinking that "this is as good as it gets".

The diseases killing Aboriginal people at a young age were not there 40 years ago and have been brought on by lifestyle choices. This makes it even more important that information is provided to help the patient understand what the medicine is going to do and how it will work to help them live longer.

Such is the need for a greater emphasis on the quality use of medicine for Aboriginal people in remote communities if Close the Gap is to be taken seriously.

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About the Author

Rollo Manning is a consultant in Darwin to Aboriginal communities and organisations in health and social development.

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