Pharmacists in OTC pill call

The Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) has backed a call from Choice Ireland for the morning after pill to be made available without a doctor’s prescription.

Choice Ireland , a group of pro-choice activists, has called for emergency contraception to be made available-over- the-counter (OTC) after a report that a GP in Co. Kerry refused to prescribe it on “religious and ethical” grounds, and the woman concerned had to travel to Cork the next day to get a prescription.

Medical Council ethics rules state that where a doctor has a conscientious objection to providing a particular treatment, he or she must make the names of other doctor who might provide the treatment available to the patient.

The IPU said pharmacists have the skills and competencies to dispense the morning afer pill and provide appropriate advice and counselling to such patients.

Meath pharmacist Kathy Maher said it was important that patients get timely access to emergency hormonal contraception, but many often find it difficult to get a prescription at the weekend and come into pharmacies urgently looking for the morning-after pill.

She said the morning-after pill should not be the only form of contraception used and pharmacists could also refer patients back to their GP, where appropriate, for a consultation on their contraceptive choices once the morning after pill has been dispensed.

The IPU pointed out that a study published in the British Medical Journal after patients in the UK were enabled to access emergency hormonal contraception directly from pharmacists found that it did not appear to have led to an increase in its use or to a decrease in the use of other forms of contraception.

The morning-after pill can be taken for up to 72 hours after unprotected sex but the earlier it is taken, the more effective it is.

Sinead Ahern, spokeswoman for Choice Ireland, said: “the need for a prescription to obtain the morning after pill is a significant burden in itself. A women must first find a GP who will see her – which can be difficult at the weekend, when demand for the pill is highest – and then pay the roughly €60 visit fee, on top of the charge for the pill.”

She said the longer the delay, the less effective the pill is and the more likely a crisis pregnancy will result. “This poses a particular problem for women in rural areas where access to GPs can be very limited, especially at weekends.”

The Medical Council’s latest ethics guidelines state that doctors must must not allow their personal moral standards to influence their treatment of patients.

“If you have a conscientious objection to a course of action, you should explain this to the patient and make the names of other doctors available to them. Conscientious objection does not absolve you from responsibility to a patient in emergency circumstances,” the guidelines state.