Pharmacists set to play an increasingly important role

Pharmacists are helping to reduce pressure on the health system and improve quality of life. President of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, Kos Sclavos, discusses the importance of pharmacists retaining their sustainable competitive advantage in the face of growing retail competition.

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As Australia’s healthcare moves towards a more patient-centric model, pharmacists are playing an increasingly important role in helping people to stay well.

“The ageing population and a growing incidence of chronic disease are major challenges for the health system,” says Kos Sclavos, President of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia. “It costs roughly $1,800 a day to keep someone in hospital or a high-care aged facility and one of the most effective ways of keeping people at home or in a lower-care residential situation is to ensure they’re taking their medicines as prescribed. Pharmacists are uniquely placed to help with this.”

A successful aspect of eHealth in Australia is the Pharmacy Guild’s eRx, a nation-wide Prescription Exchange Service, which enables safe and secure electronic transmission of prescription and dispensing data between authorised doctors and pharmacists. There are currently 3.5 million health records a week going into this system.

“Both major political parties have also pledged support for the National Prescription and Dispense Prescription Repository,” says Sclavos. “This provides a more complete history of medications prescribed and dispensed, making non-compliance easier to identify and manage. I believe that this will be the most significant change in the health system over the next 10 years.”

Pharmacists also offer paid professional services funded by government, such as blister-packed dose administration aids, home medication reviews and the MedsCheck program, which is a systematic review of a patient’s medication.

“Over the next couple of years I expect to see more prescribers of Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) medicines, such as physiotherapists,” says Sclavos. “By acting as the gatekeeper, the pharmacist will be able to ensure that different people aren’t prescribing the same drug or the same type of drug and to avoid medicine-related problems.”

Sclavos has fought hard for these services to be initiated by pharmacists rather than general practitioners. “The home medicine review program requires the doctor to initiate the program,” he says. “Some were interested but others weren’t, leaving pharmacists unable to provide the service they had trained for. Now, pharmacists can initiate most new programs, which they believe is in the patients’ best interest.”

Sustaining a competitive advantage

Prescriptions are a pharmacy’s core business but the federal government sets a fixed price for the vast majority of PBS medicines. Price is a factor in other pharmacy categories and pharmacies must compete with supermarkets, department stores, online retailers, discount stores and natural therapists.

“Many people in retail are finding it tough at the moment, with discretionary spending in traditional pharmacy categories such as health and beauty particularly affected by low consumer confidence,” says Sclavos. “Pharmacies are also suffering collateral damage from the price war between the big supermarkets. When they discount vitamins, for example, they’re targeting each other rather than the pharmacies, though we feel the effects – and we’re never going to be able to compete on price because the buying power is distorted.”

He advises his colleagues to focus on their sustainable competitive advantage.

“Category by category, line by line, pharmacists need to take a strategic approach,” he says. “Customers aren’t interested in whether or not a product is a pharmacy-only medication. They just want a health solution, so you need to develop a solutions-based approach. Where you’re in a position to offer a more effective treatment you should make the effort to supply it even where, as with sinus medications containing pseudoephedrine-based products, more administration, paperwork and security measures are required. These products are pharmacy only and we can’t afford to ignore points of difference.

“Pharmacists are uniquely placed to develop relationships with our customers. We know their names and we have a range of government-funded programs at our disposal to help them derive the greatest benefit from their medication. It’s up to us to foster loyalty and recognition of the unique role we play in the community.”

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