Fixing Pharmacies

Chemists made the news in a rather negative way in the last week, with a report that the disease, which many Kiwis might imagine to be an American one, of medical professionals refusing women (it’s almost always women on the recieving end of this sort of thing) contraceptives because of their religious feelings, is popping up here.

Bruising though this is in a city like Wellington, it’s pretty easy to work around with a trip to another pharmacy, and a pharmacist who hasn’t confused their government-given control over dispensing medicines with a government mandate to victimise others based on their religious views.

In small towns, though, it can have vastly more serious consequences, since another chemist is not necessarily down the road, and legistlation in New Zealand limits pharmacies to owner-operator situations1. It’s as though supermarkets weren’t allowed to sell meat, and the only butcher in town refused to provide bacon because he’s a Muslim. Only with vastly more serious consequences.

The justification for this regulation has been focused on the medical function provided by pharmacists: vetting prescriptions, checking the safety of over-the-counter medicines, for example. But a few minutes spent inside any chemist in New Zealand could cause a less-charitable observer to think they’ve fallen back in time.

I’m not bothered by novelty soaps, hair ties, hats, wheat packs, or tweezers, for example; while there’s nothing about them that would reasonable require a licensed professional to sell them, one can hardly say they’re doing any harm. But a stroll through the average pharmacy will show the shelves laden with dodgy products with no demonstrable medical value being tacitly flogged. It can feel more like visiting an apothecary or patent medicine tent.

Let’s step back a moment: if you are a women needing emergency contraception, the legal justification for leaving your ability to obtain it up to the whims of the local chemist is that said chemist is a health professional. And the reason that your owner-operated pharmacy only has to compete with other owner-operators is because the government says so.

One fix to this might be more legislation around what chemists may and may not say no to, which would likely be a rather drawn-out fight. But there is, I believe, a much simpler fix available: remove the protection pharmacists enjoy in the marketplace.

No, I am not suggesting removing any kind of pharmacy qualification or dramatically changing the requirments to become a pharmacist. I am, however, completely unable to see why pharmacists get to operate a government-backed monopoly on the ownership of dispenseries. If the local chemist will not dispense the morning after pill, or any other damn thing, because they have a bee in their bonnet about whether women should be allowed to run their own damn bodies, or if they think I shouldn’t be allowed Voltarin because suffering brings me closer to Nirvana, or whatever whimsical crap gets between a medically appropriate treatement and a patient, then I should not have to drive to the next town to get what I need; I should be able to pop into New World, or Countdown, or one of the numerous other supermarkets who would no doubt be happy to hire properly qualified pharmacists to make sure my request is medically appropriate.

And there is no possible counter-argument that can relate to the public good. None. Because pharmacists, as a profession, have allowed their members to use their legally-priveleged position to flog dodgy non-medicines as being efficacious; your local pharmacy most likely sells as much snake-oil as codeine.

If I can walk into a chemist and get dodgy “health supplements” more easily than actually medically tested contraceptives, then claims that owner-operated pharmacies care more about my health than Pak-n-Save are self-evidently crap. But if Pak-n-Save can sell (with vetting by an employee pharmacist) plan B, they will, without bullshit religious tests. Because if they don’t, Countdown will.

  1. I am old enough, in fact, to remember how exciting it was when supermarkets were to be allowed to sell common pain relief or condoms. ↩︎