The Department of Health has been urged to appoint a chief pharmacy officer (CPO) as a matter of priority.
According to the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU), the role of the CPO exists in many other healthcare systems, including in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland, as well as in many US states.
The role typically involves policy and strategy development, national oversight of medicine supply, pharmacy regulations and maximising the potential of the community pharmacy sector to achieve better patient outcomes at a local level
Speaking at the IPU AGM at the weekend, IPU president Dermot Twomey pointed out that medicines “are the most significant healthcare intervention for our population and having a CPO is clearly in the interests of Irish patients”.
“Ireland currently has a chief medical officer, a chief nursing officer, a chief dentistry officer and a chief veterinary officer. All support essential aspects of Irish healthcare or animal welfare in the case of the chief veterinary officer.
“However, none of their respective areas could function without the pharmacy sector. It is inappropriate in 2022 that medicine supply and the strategic direction of the community and hospital pharmacy sectors is an afterthought at the highest levels of the health service,” Mr Twomey insisted.
He said that the absence of such a role in Ireland “makes us an outlier in modern healthcare systems”.
“Those jurisdictions that have created such a position have demonstrated the value it represents. For example, pharmacists in Scotland operate according to a clear national pharmacy strategy which is integrated into the wider health service. Through this simple but effective structure, pharmacists’ specialist knowledge in medicines is utilised to best effect for people’s health and wellbeing. Why can’t we take a similar approach here?”
Mr Twomey believes that a number of recent challenges encountered by the community pharmacy sector highlight the need for a CPO.
For example, there was “an inexplicable delay” enlisting community pharmacies as part of the Covid-19 vaccination campaign. This delay was repeated when it came to the booster campaign when pharmacists were not initially included for no logical reason.
“I believe the delayed booster rollout in particular would not have happened if a CPO had been in place. And community pharmacies are currently being inundated with patients concerned about the shortage of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) medication to treat symptoms associated with the menopause. Again, a CPO would help to address this through a concerted national action plan,” Mr Twomey said.
He noted that the State spent €2.3 billion on medications in 2020 alone, so the expense of setting up an office to oversee this spend “seems modest and justified”.
“Medicine supply and the regulation of pharmacies is a complex web of several different bodies. The complexity and bureaucracy of our system is one of the main reasons Ireland often lags other countries in the introduction of new medications to treat patients. When there is no single individual with oversight of the entire sector, it is easy to see how it fails to evolve,” he commented.
He said that while successive governments have committed to expanding the role of the pharmacist, “this has never resulted in an iota of action”. However, a CPO “could deliver meaningful and rapid change to benefit patients”.
“There are several immediate priorities that would face a CPO. For instance, the Department is planning on reversing improvements to prescription and controlled drug legislation instigated during the pandemic which had the effect of making our systems more efficient and more importantly, allowed better care for our patients. This is the exact type of bureaucratic box ticking that a CPO could identify and prevent,” Mr Twomey suggested.
He said that the upcoming changes of the chief and deputy chief medical officers present the perfect opportunity to “rethink and modernise the clinical leadership of the Department of Health”.
“Valuable lessons can be taken from the pandemic and we can learn from the experience of the CPO role as employed by Ireland’s nearest neighbours. The time to do this is now and we hope that the decision makers will not miss this opportunity,” Mr Twomey added.