How safe is the patient safety net?

In the ‘Blogging on Demand’ series you get to choose the topic. If you have a great idea you want the world to know about, feel free to contact me. Perth GP Dr Jacquie Garton-Smith proposes a change to the PBS safety net to protect vulnerable patients.

“One thing that my patients with chronic disease on lower incomes find difficult,” says Dr Garton-Smith, “is that they have to pay for all their medications until they hit the safety net. Even if people are only paying the lower rate for scripts, it adds up if they are on a number of medications. I have seen it affect compliance at the beginning of the year when they have to decide which medications they need most.”

The general patient safety net threshold is currently $1,453.90, and the concessional threshold $366. When someone or their family’s total co-payments reach this amount, they only have to pay the concessional co-payment amount of $6.10 until the end of the calendar year. Concessional card holders get standard PBS scripts for free after they reach the threshold.

The PBS co-payment and safety net amounts, effective from 1 January 2015:

General patient co-payment: $37.70

Concessional co-payment: $6.10

General safety net threshold: $1,453.90

Concessional safety net threshold: $366.00.

A safer solution

Garton-Smith: “Loading the costs into a few months of the year and then being free the rest of the year for concessional card holders is concerning. My patients tell me the safety net is supposed to help them but doesn’t – until it kicks in. For someone who has diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolaemia, arthritis, reflux, depression and sometimes osteoporosis, asthma or COPD, you can see the impact. This is not an unusual scenario.”

“It would be so much easier if the cost could be spread out over the year for people likely to hit the safety net. It would also prevent people attempting to stock-pile at the end of the year. I realise most people don’t get more than 5 scripts a month but those who need to are often managing serious health problems.”

Medication adherence 

Research has shown that when co-payments for medications increase, more people stop their treatment. This includes essential preventive medications, and as a result more visits to the doctor and hospital may be required.

Associate professor Michael Ortiz said in Australian Prescriber: “Some have argued that greater cost sharing does not undermine overall patient health because patients facing rising costs will reduce their consumption of perceived non-essential medications more than their consumption of essential drugs. However, ‘preventive’ drugs are different, because not all patients understand the long-term benefits of taking medicines for conditions such as hypertension and hypercholesterolaemia.”

“Some of my patients need to delay filling scripts they see as less essential

Garton-Smith: “A patient I have seen needs to buy more than ten medications every month at a cost of $85. Sometimes there are extra costs, for example if he needs antibiotics. On a single disability pension he gets $840.20 per fortnight, so approximately 5% of his income is spent on scripts until he reaches the safety net threshold, generally by May. Even though he gets a lot of prescriptions filled just before the end of December, he usually needs to delay filling scripts that he sees as less essential at the start of the year.”

Professor Michael Ortiz in Australian Prescriber: “The current approach to PBS savings is that the Government takes most of the cost savings, but increases co-payments and safety net thresholds each year in line with inflation. Increasing co-payments reduces medication adherence and ultimately may compromise the care of some patients.”

Thanks to Dr Jacquie Garton-Smith for the topic suggestion.

The looming war between pharmacists and doctors

The looming war between pharmacists and doctors
Image: Pixabay.com
The war (…) was an unnecessary condition of affairs, and might have been avoided if forbearance and wisdom had been practised on both sides ~ Robert E. Lee

Separating the medication prescribers from the dispensers has merit. One of the advantages is that doctors and pharmacists don’t get tempted to diagnose problems to sell more drugs.

The Australian Pharmacy Guild wants to change this. They prefer pharmacists to do health checks, give advice and perform interventions such as vaccinations – while at the same time selling the solution to the problems they identify.

The Guild’s strategy is marketed as providing better access to patient care, and is apparently based on overwhelming international evidence. Indeed, in some countries pharmacists offer a wider range of services.

I’m not sure it’s always better overseas. One New Zealand doctor seemed very unhappy about pharmacists managing medical problems (and I have heard similar stories from other countries):

“I practise in New Zealand where pharmacists are allowed to treat ‘easy’ diagnoses like urinary tract infection [UTI]. Last week I consulted with a young lady who had had two diagnoses of UTI and two courses of trimethoprim [an antibiotic]. When I examined her she had a significant UTI, thrush and the possibility of a chlamydia infection, results awaited. Nothing is ‘easy’ in medicine!

The Pharmacy Guild may be a politically clever bunch, but they should have suggested a multidisciplinary solution here. Their strategy will create a backlash. In the end nobody will be better off.

Where to from here?

The signs are on the wall. Dispensing medications is not sustainable for pharmacies. Just like video rental shops had to change their business model because people started downloading movies and using automated DVD rental kiosks, this particular part of the pharmacist’s job may soon be history. The authors of an article in the British Pharmaceutical Journal ‘Dispensing: it’s time to let it go’ said: “If the aspirations of pharmacy fulfilling a clinical role integral to public healthcare is ever to be realised, community pharmacists must shift their focus away from dispensing and towards NHS service provision.”

The key here is integration. According to the authors medications could be provided in-house by health care organisations or delivered by mail, and the focus of pharmacists should be on providing integrated services like medication reviews and drug utilisation reviews. This would indeed employ the skills of pharmacists and at the same time ad value to patient care provided by other health professionals.

Or maybe pharmacists should be made responsible for quality control of over-the-counter medicines and help to stamp out misleading claims made by the domestic complementary medicines industry.

We need honest medication advice. “(…) It comes as a shock to walk into some pharmacies to see them urging products on customers where there is no evidence base of effectiveness,” said NHMRC boss Professor Warwick Anderson recently. “If you’re providing advice and care to patients, you should be clear about the evidence for the treatment.”

The pharmacy industry is comfortably protected by their community pharmacy agreement with the Federal Government, and state laws stipulate only pharmacists can own a pharmacy. A new pharmacy cannot set up shop close to an existing pharmacy. Other professions, like doctors and lawyers, don’t have this competition protection.

The service expansion drift of pharmacy-owners will eventually provoke a response from the AMA and RACGP and other medical organisations. The idea of the pharmacist in general practice has been floating around for a while. Doctors may demand dispensing rights and lobby for an end to the pharmacy cartel.

A study in the Medical Journal of Australia showed that dispensing doctors issued fewer PBS scripts than non-dispensing doctors. This is one argument for dispensaries in GP surgeries; other arguments are evidence-based medication advice and consumer convenience. Think about it: What’s easier than, after having seen the doctor, walking to the dispensing machine in the hallway, scanning your script and receiving your medications? Robotic dispensing reduces medication errors (see video below) and nobody is suggesting multivitamins, supplements or probiotics at the same time.

But just because a service is more convenient, doesn’t mean that it is a good solution. Doctors should not do the pharmacist’s job, just like pharmacists would do well to stay away from medical services.

There is still time

Pharmacy-owners face reduced profits because the Government has set lower prices for generic medications under the price disclosure arrangements. Although it is understandable they are looking for other income streams, this is a dead-end. The last thing we need is a war between pharmacists and doctors.

Needless to say it’s not in the interest of health consumers. It will create confusion, duplication, false reassurance, frustration, missed screening opportunities, fragmentation of care and higher costs.

Doctors have to accept change too. If people feel they cannot access a GP when they need to, we should improve this. One solution would be to fund nurse-lead walk-in vaccination services within the safe, clinical environment of the GP surgery. The pharmacist can play a role as part of the multidisciplinary team.

The current community pharmacy agreement expires in June 2015. There is still time.

Follow me on Twitter: @EdwinKruys

How do you put up with this, doc? Red tape in medical practice

“How do you put up with this, doc?” She looked at me while I was on the phone. We were waiting for almost ten minutes.

Every time she comes in we go through the same ritual: I ring the PBS Authority hotline, we wait, sometimes for a couple of minutes, and sometimes longer – like today. I always get approval, and then print off the script for her. In the meantime other patients are waiting in the waiting room or trying to get an appointment.

According to the AMA thirty per cent of medical practitioners reported spending ten minutes a day or longer waiting for calls to be answered. So here we are: we have a shortage of doctors and we make them jump through bureaucratic hoops instead of seeing patients.

An estimated 25,000 patient consultations are lost every month while doctors are making phone calls to the PBS Authority hotline. At the same time various reviews have shown that this procedure is unnecessary and does not lead to any savings.

I was very pleased to see the Australian Medical Association submission to the National Commision of Audit earlier this month. The AMA states in the introduction:

Though there has been some recent progress in reducing regulatory burdens in a few areas of medical practice, the amount of regulatory burden and red tape remains excessively high without any real justification. Internal AMA research shows that a large number of GPs spend up to nine hours or more each week meeting their red tape obligations. Every hour a GP spends doing paperwork equates to around four patients who are denied access to their doctor.

The submission focuses on six areas:

  1. PBS phone authorisations.
  2. Medicare provider numbers
  3. Medicare payments
  4. Personally Controlled Electronic Health Records (PCEHR) registration for medical practices
  5. Centrelink and Department of Veterans’ Affairs documentation requirements
  6. Chronic Disease Management items under the MBS

Although there are lots of other areas that need improvement, this seems like a good start.