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If Mainstream Reporting On The Business Of Pharmacy Was Held To The Same Standards As The Sports Pages, The Public Might Get A Clearer Picture, Writes Fintan Moore

There was bit of a media meal recently made out of the results of a study carried out by a PhD student in the Department of General Practice at the RCSI. Somehow it seemed to be a surprise to people that different pharmacies charge different prices for prescription medicines. This stunning nugget was the take-home message from the study, which was big on data analysis — they made full use of the RCSI’s statistics programme — but dependably short on common-sense questions. The kind of questions they didn’t think to mention include ones such as, ‘Do some of the pharmacies with higher prices have higher overheads due to their annual rent and rates bills?’ Or, ‘Is there a link between higher prices and better staffing levels, so that the service is better and faster?’ How about, ‘Is there a link between higher prices and the size of the business loan the owner is paying off?’ This is before you get to the slightly more complex queries, like ‘When there’s a problem with a prescription, do the pharmacy staff have the time and interest to try and sort it out for the patient with the prescriber, or do they hand the prescription back to the patient to figure it for themselves?’ It’s easy to see why the RCSI student didn’t consider any of this, because the answers aren’t the sort you can feed into a computer to get a pretty little table. Out in the real world, pharmacists know that patients will happily pay a little more for prescriptions in a pharmacy that looks after them properly. If the service levels aren’t good enough, or the ‘little’ extra isn’t little enough, then the patient will eventually move. 

The Irish Times didn’t cover itself in glory when it came to reporting on the study. Remarkably, for a paper that prides itself on its ‘Paper of Record’ status, the journalist writing about the topic managed to include the mistaken information that E-prescribing (sic) has the effect of ‘locking patients into the pharmacy they nominate to the GP when their medicines are being prescribed’. Except that it doesn’t… we routinely have to forward or receive healthmails to or from other pharmacies. 

The Irish Times didn’t cover itself in glory when it came to reporting on the study

The cynic in me reckons that newspapers don’t mind inaccuracies that lend themselves to negative stories, so they just print rather than verify. I also suspect that the sports pages tend to be the most trustworthy with facts, because if a sports writer gets the facts wrong, then their opinions get ridiculed. More of that in the other departments would be helpful. 


There is an understandable debate going on at the moment about the acceptable level of use that police forces should be allowed to make of facial recognition software. It is technologically possible to record everyone on a given street, or in a crowd, and match the faces to a database of names. The potential advantages for criminal investigations are obvious, but that requires a high degree of trust in a country’s police force. It’s easy to envisage a scenario in which political demonstrations in some countries would be filmed with less benign motives. However, if these systems ever get cheap enough to install in a pharmacy, I’ll be sorely tempted to get one. My inability to match patients’ names and faces is a never-ending bugbear. My often-used get out of jail card is to pretend that I know the person’s name and ask, ‘What’s your address?’ then search using the answer. Or I occasionally end up asking the patient what item they need, and then call up a list of every person who had that item dispensed to them in the last couple of months. So having a camera trained on the counter throwing up the name to match the face would be a godsend. 


Something I’ve been wondering over the last couple of years is if insect bites have somehow become more prone to getting infected. Every summer used to involve the occasional patient coming in with a swollen red area, usually on an arm or a leg, that started out as an insect bite a few days earlier. However, in recent summers, it seems to be a more frequent occurrence. Also, the speed with which bites get nasty seems to have increased — I’ve seen ones that were unmistakably going to need flucloxacillin after about only 24 hours. I’d be curious to know whether this is just my imagination, or a genuine phenomenon, possibly caused by global warming allowing more bugs to be active in our summer months. There’s a worthwhile study for a student somewhere…