The Irish Pharmacy Union is actively working on a new protocol which would allow its 1,800 members to directly prescribe the morning-after pill to women in pharmacies throughout the country.
This follows the controversial decision by the Boots pharmacy chain to start offering the pill to patients last week in 49 of its 50 Irish stores at a cost of €45. The move is expected to lead to a huge increase in the availability of the pill without the need to first attend a doctor.
The IPU expects the morning-after pill to be available through its members within the next six months, and has also suggested that it may in time be possible to provide other services such as the cervical cancer vaccine directly through pharmacies.
Boots launched its morning-after pill service last week by availing of an amendment to 2005 legislation, which means emergency contraception can be offered by pharmacists if they work under a protocol drawn up by a doctor.
Boots' own protocol, or "Patient Group Direction" (PGD), for providing the service was authorised by the company's medical director, who is based in Britain but registered with the Irish Medical Council.
IPU president Darragh O'Loughlin confirmed the union is currently developing a draft protocol for its members, which was "more complex" due to the fact that its members are not all part of a chain as is the case with Boots pharmacists.
While individual members could apply to their local GPs for such a directive, this could prove problematic if the GP in question does not wish to see provision of the morning-after pill – and the consultation fees it involves – move away from their practices.
O'Loughlin said that once the union's protocol is completed, it would then be up to individual members to decide if they want to provide the morning-after pill by undergoing the necessary training required to implement it correctly.
"The IPU is actively working on this at the moment and have been for a number of months. It is our policy that we will use these PGDs to try to facilitate the provision of prescription-only services to patients where possible," he said.
"We would hope to get it out there certainly within the first six months of the year."
The IPU also believes the new protocols could eventually be extended to cover other services such as the provision of the cervical cancer vaccine and other medicines for symptoms such as thrush and minor eye infections.
These services are currently prescription-only but are available over-the-counter in other countries.
Mary Rose Burke, chief pharmacist with Boots Ireland, told the Sunday Tribune it was "very satisfied" with the level of interest from women seeking to avail of its new service since it began on Wednesday.
She added that it hopes to make announcements on "one or two" other new services in the months ahead, but would not say what these were.
However, she said the wording of the current legislation means the provision of services under a PGD is limited to "once-off" doses administered in the presence of the pharmacist, although Boots would like to see the legislation altered to allow for other medicines to be provided.