Column: A bitter pill to swallow

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A health board is considering telling patients to go straight to their local pharmacy to buy things like paracetamol or piles cream instead of getting their GP to write a prescription for the medicine.

The radical idea to refuse to issue prescriptions for certain pills and potions is being looked at by NHS Borders which has already agreed to “restrict the prescribing of some low clinical value medicines” to cut costs.

I wonder how long it will be before NHS Forth Valley and the rest of Scotland’s health authorities follow suit.

The SNP Scottish Government introduced free prescriptions in 2011 and the bill last year was £1.3 billion. Since the charges were scrapped, the cost of giving out paracetamol alone has topped £57 million, yet the tabs can be bought over the counter from a high street chemist or supermarket for as little as 15p for a packet of 16.

I’m not surprised NHS Borders has warned it has to take steps to bring the spend on these painkillers under control, or that NHS Tayside has already banned one-off prescriptions for paracetamol and ibuprofen to save £1 million a year.

A recent appointment with my GP, prompted by the return of the aches and pains related to my on-going issue with arthritis, resulted in the ‘doc’ hitting a few buttons on the keyboard of his laptop and a prescription for 100 of the country’s favourite painkiller scooting off the printer. When I showed my wife the paperwork, she promptly binned it and the next time she was out shopping bought what I needed at Tesco.

Long before I retired, I had reached the conclusion the ‘free pills’ pledge made by the Nationalists was far too generous – a bit like the bus pass actually – a great thing to have, but do we ALL really have to take full advantage of it all the time?

In an article on the subject at the weekend the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s director for Scotland, rightly in my opinion, pointed out that if patients go to see their local pharmacist with minor ailments like coughs and colds, haemorrhoids, hay fever and diarrhoea they will not only be given the right advice and meds, they will have saved the NHS money and freed up their GPs’ surgery to allow the doctor to focus on the needs of someone who is actually seriously ill.

I suppose we shouldn’t really be surprised the free prescription policy is bringing so much financial pressure to bear on the NHS in Scotland. As a nation, more and more of us are living longer and more and more of us face the daily challenge of staying fit and well. It’s inevitable that at some time we will need medicines that are of ‘high clinical value’ and great we will not have to pick up the tab for them. I don’t think being urged to spend around 15p to cure a headache or a pain in your little finger is too much to ask.

It is also worth pointing out that, in theory are least, the more of us who opt to ‘pay as we go’ for the basics needed to treat minor conditions, the more cash there should be available to plough into buying the latest high tech drugs streaming onto the market that can help those who are seriously ill and in desperate need of them.