Until the new changes made were announced in England this week, only certain 'prescribers' have been allowed to assess patients and prescribe medicine to aid their recovery. Some of these medical professionals are known as 'Independent Prescribers', and they include doctors, dentists nurses, pharmacists and optometrist. But news this week, has seen another two professions added to that list, meaning that physiotherapists and podiatrists will soon be empowered to do the same. So far the announcements have affected England, but the legislation is expected to spread to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the near future.
The news marks a big development in English healthcare because it is the first country in the world to allow these two professions the right to prescribe. Up until now, it has been necessary for physiotherapists and podiatrists to refer their patient to a GP if he or she needs a prescription. Legislation passed in 2001, made it possible for certain UK physiotherapists to become 'supplementary prescribers', meaning they have the power to continue prescribing medicines which have previously been prescribed by an independent prescriber (normally a doctor). However, until now, these prescriptions could only be written for medicines already listed in the patients' clinical management plan.
Back in 2004, the first talks of physiotherapists getting independent prescribing rights occurred. These discussions followed changes made in the early 2000s, which enabled specially trained nurses and pharmacists to write prescriptions for a wide range of drugs, including antibiotics for infections. In the future, the plan is to extend prescribing rights to an even wider range of healthcare workers such as optometrists, chiropodists, and radiographers. Most of these professionals are currently entitled to become supplementary prescribers, but the recent policy update does not yet affect their powers to prescribe.
According to the UK Department of Health, the latest changes have been put in place because physiotherapists and podiatrists frequently work with patients with acute and long-term conditions, and therefore patients who are in regular need of attention and medication. When the legislation takes effect next year, it is hoped that this group of patients will receive better, faster care instead of waiting unnecessarily for a prescription for something simple like pain relief medication.
The news has been welcomed by most people in the NHS because it represents a big step forward in efficiency and convenience. In particular, physios will be able to provide an additional service by prescribing medication to patients with chronic back pain and multiple sclerosis, so patients will no longer obliged to make a doctors appointment, or even contact emergency services if they are in need of new medication. According to the care and support minister, Norman Lamb, from 2014, the changes will free up valuable GP time and reduce the strain on GPs' working weeks across the UK. Mr Lamb also feels that this is a good example of how the NHS is moving to "the forefront of healthcare, paving the way for other countries".
The announcement has caused particular celebration within the physiotherapist community. The chief executive of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, Phil Gray, declared "a landmark moment". Overall, the new legislation should improve the status of NHS physios and highlight the highly skilled, confident, autonomous and accountable nature of the profession.
Understandably, it will still take some time for the legislation to come into effect because physiotherapists and podiatrists are not able to start prescribing immediately. Any healthcare workers in these fields wanting to gain independent prescribing rights will first need to participate in specialised training courses in order to learn about medicines, and pharmacology and to understand the effect of a prescribing decision on a patient's other medication.
The next stage is for The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) to create a framework for independent prescribing, which will then determine the content of the new courses. Charlotte Urwin, HCPC policy manager recognises that: 'Regulation has a really important role in ensuring safely and effectively.' It is estimated that those physiotherapists who already have supplementary prescriber status will be the first to complete the new training, and then it is hoped that other physios and podiatrists will take on the additional responsibilities and create radical change for the professions and the NHS overall.