Health professionals have warned that the NHS in Northern Ireland could be crippled by a decision to cut the number of conditions that can be treated by your local chemist.
Less than two years after the Minor Ailments Scheme was launched to improve public access to healthcare and reduce pressure on family doctors, the Health & Social Care Board has announced that colds, coughs, sore throats, nasal symptoms and allergic rhinitis will no longer be included in the list of illnesses treatable by pharmacies.
The board has defended the changes, but with the number of people suffering from coughs and colds rocketing and the flu season approaching, a leading doctors’ union has described the move as “another attack on frontline services”.
And the Pharmaceutical Contractors Committee (PCC) has also hit out at the overhaul of the service, claiming that it will lead to more people going to their GP for prescriptions and ultimately cost the taxpayer more money. They described the changes as a decimation of a critical service.
From Monday, under the revised scheme, the six minor ailments for which medicines will still be available from pharmacists are diarrhoea, headlice, threadworms, vaginal thrush, athlete’s foot and fungal infection of the groin.
The move comes just weeks after the British Medical Association (BMA) warned doctors were finding it increasingly difficult to deliver all services after £5.2m was cut from the GP budget.
The top official in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) also admitted Northern Ireland's health provision was the worst in the UK.
Dr Tom Black, the deputy chair of the BMA (NI) GP Committee, said: “It is very disappointing to see another cut to frontline services in Northern Ireland.
“Unfortunately the Assembly has been unable to ringfence funding for healthcare as we have seen in the rest of the UK.
“We are concerned many of these patients will now block phone lines to GP practices and, given recent cuts to funding for staff in general practices, this will be a very difficult situation to cope with.”
Gerard Greene, chief executive of the PCC, said: “I am extremely disappointed and dismayed at plans to dramatically reduce the scope of this frontline service that has been proven to deliver successfully for patients.
“Under the plans, which will come into effect almost immediately, conditions that accounted for some 80% of all minor ailments consultations carried out to date will no longer be allowed.
“We believe that cutting the Minor Ailments Service will inadvertently cost the public purse as GPs will become inundated with patients.
“On top of this, the range of medication that pharmacists can prescribe is controlled, which also ensures that the cost to the public purse is minimised.”
Joe Brogan, head of pharmacy at the board, said that at a time of reduced spending it was important to invest in areas of care that provided most benefit for patients.
He said: “It is necessary to strike an appropriate balance between clinical effectiveness and the cost to the health service and to the taxpayer. I believe we are getting that right under the revised arrangements.”