It is inconceivable that doctors should lambast the Health Minister's proposals for pharmacists to prescribe medicine, according to the chamber of pharmacists.

Martin Balzan, president of the Medical Association of Malta, said the MAM was "surprised and disappointed" that the Health Ministry was "considering abandoning the ethical principles in the prescription of medicines".

On Monday, Health Minister Joe Cassar said his ministry was working to expand the role of community pharmacists by giving them the power to prescribe medicine after appropriate training. This would bring Malta in line with practices in other countries such as the UK, where this kind of scheme was implemented in May 2006.

But the MAM reacted negatively, saying "the current Medicines Act prevents medical practitioners from dispensing medicines to protect patients from a potential conflict of interest between the prescriber and the dispenser who profits from the sale of medicines".

The association made further financially-related comments, saying the reform would lead to "unsafe practice and a conflict of interest, which will further raise the price of medicines". It called for the "liberalisation of pharmacy licences" for there to be competition and subsequent decreases in the cost of medicines.

The Chamber of Pharmacists called the comments "long exhausted, feeble, non sequitur arguments," adding it took "bona fide professionals to change a mentality and move with the times".

Dr Cassar yesterday defended the proposal, saying that "if we want to ensure that our high level of health is maintained and improved, focusing on health services alone is not enough and we need to implement a series of public health strategies that will strive to bring about healthy well-being for the Maltese population now and in the future."

The Pharmacy Research Group has been studying the idea of pharmacist prescriptions for the past 10 years, following international developments and implementation strategies in other countries.

Lilian Azzopardi, speaking for the group, said it believed Dr Cassar was "bringing professional pharmacy services in Malta in line with those developed successfully in other countries more than five years ago". "Research has shown that a cooperative relationship between pharmacists and physicians should be enhanced in favour of patient safety."

Prof. Azzopardi said that, while the group understood the medical profession's reservations on pharmacist prescribing medicines, experience in the UK "has shown the reservations to be unwarranted".

"The Research Group feels, moreover, that the five-year undergraduate programme in pharmacy provides the necessary skills and competences for pharmacists to assume a prescribing role which enhances patient safety and promotes effective communication with other healthcare professionals."

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