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Thursday, 21 August 2008

Putting prescriptions in perspective

A five percent hike in the number of prescriptions dispensed in Wales, reported in official figures has led to the usual knee jerk response, that it obviously signifies a failure of the free prescription policy now benefiting patients in Wales. Why? Critics believe patients are exploiting the system to stockpile Bonjela and Calpol. Can this be true? What’s the evidence? Precious little, but let’s not allow the truth to get in the way of a good story!

There has been a five percent increase in the number of prescription items issued by GPs – during, at a conservative estimate, 12 million GP consultations annually – and rising – now that’s a fact! So what are the issues surrounding this?

Firstly, the notion that these figures are somehow out of the ordinary and a direct consequence of the free prescriptions policy is just not the case. In fact, if you look at the figures in detail for the last ten years or so, the rate of increase in prescription items issued has consistently grown by 3-4 percent for every year BEFORE the introduction of free prescriptions. Is there something else going on? Definitely.

Secondly, changes to GP contracts have resulted in more patients than ever being seen by their doctor – with a focus on early diagnosis of disease and much earlier treatment, with tighter control of chronic diseases through healthstyle advice and support, and where necessary drug treatment, based on sound clinical evidence. Patients with high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, to name a few, are seeing the health benefits being delivered through the new GP contract – inevitably this programme of early diagnosis and treatment will result in a rise in prescriptions – and long term health benefits for the individual.

Thirdly, we cannot escape the fact we have an ever increasing elderly population – with increasing health needs – and fortunately, increasing means by which to treat them.

Of course, there will always be a few who will seek to exploit the system. But on the whole, GPs are not reporting that they have been inundated with unreasonable demands.

Politicians would do well to focus their efforts on developing a full and frank debate with the public about what should and shouldn’t be funded on the NHS instead of the annual pre-occupation with free prescriptions. The issue of new drugs, and their affordability is one that seriously concerns patients and professionals alike.

So the next time a politician says that free prescriptions are a waste of money and are robbing vital resources from our NHS, perhaps it might just be worth asking the question whether a widescreen television, curtain rails, or even coat hangers are an expense that could also be better spent elsewhere.