Pharmacists will be able to administer COVID-19 vaccinations when the wider immunisation program begins in mid-2021, but doctor groups believe pharmacies should be excluded because they're retailers who also sell products.
Associate Professor Chris Freeman, chief executive of Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, said it makes sense to include pharmacists as they were "one of the more accessible healthcare professions across the country".
Staff at CSL in Melbourne are working on the AstraZeneca-Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine.Credit:Darrian Traynor/Getty Image
"Pharmacists have got the skills, capability and competency," he said.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration expects at least one vaccine will be approved by January ahead of an initial roll-out in March to three priority groups including healthcare workers and the elderly.
Guided by Australia's COVID-19 vaccination policy, pharmacists will be part of the vaccination program for the broader population later in the year, a Department of Health spokesman said.
"As outlined in the policy, key vaccination sites for the vaccine priority groups are expected to initially include hospitals, respiratory clinics and general practices," he said.
"Pharmacists are expected to play a role in the wider COVID-19 vaccination rollout, occurring from mid-2021."
But doctors were concerned why pharmacists were so eager to administer vaccines, Australian Medical Association President Dr Omar Khorshid said.
"The motivation of getting patients into the pharmacy is to get them using that as a health hub. Our view is the appropriate home for that is with a doctor, who is not trying to sell you anything else," he said.
"Pharmacy is an important part of primary care, but also a retail space trying to sell you products."
Dr Khorshid said there were multiple reasons a COVID vaccination program should remain focused on GPs.
One concern was that the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccines was likely to be complex, with cold chain storage, multiple-dose vials and a requirement to enter all vaccinations on the national immunisation register.
He also said general practice has the capacity itself to roll out a nation-wide program.
"We won’t be getting 50 million doses on day one anyway, it will be trickling in," he said.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Dr Karen Price echoed Dr Khorshid's comments, and added vaccines were an important excuse to address other potential health needs with their patients.
"This is reducing health to a task, say, vaccination," she said.
"For most patients this is an opportunity to talk about their health, to take their blood pressure, and check up if things are OK, this is not just a vaccination."
President of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia George Tambassis said the doctors groups were entitled to their opinions, but including pharmacists in the roll out means more people will be able to get vaccinated more quickly.
"Ultimately, the patient will decide where they want to get vaccinated," he said.
"We know patients want a choice, we’re not saying GPs shouldn’t be immunisers, you’ve just got to give the patient the choice."
Associate Professor Freeman said pharmacists had experience in cold chain storage and using the national immunisation register, so it made sense for them to be part of holistic approach to a vaccine program.
"I know that there are some medical groups concerned about pharmacist involvement, but I think it’s time we put away the turf protection arguments – we should be focused on the health of the population," he said.
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