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Pharmacy Industry Overhaul

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Staff shake-up at pharmacies seen as cure
24 July 2009
The Standard

The city's 500 pharmacies and dispensaries may be required to have full-time pharmacists - instead of them being present for just a third of their business hours - under a looming overhaul of the industry.

Under current laws, a pharmacy need only have a pharmacist working 6.7 hours if it is open for business 10 hours a day.

But members of a top-level committee, formed after a spate of drug contamination blunders that have killed six people, have reached a consensus that fully staffed pharmacies is the way to go, The Standard has been told.

The government proposal means dispensaries will have to create an additional shift for a pharmacist.

The 20-member committee, chaired by Permanent Secretary for Food and Health Sandra Lee Suk-yee and including representatives from the medical and pharmaceutical sectors, is handling the review that will lead to the first major overhaul of the industry in decades.

Iris Chang, a committee member representing the Practising Pharmacists Association of Hong Kong, said there is urgency to reform the licensing requirements of dispensaries and pharmacies because illegal practices are ``prevalent especially in smaller outlets.''

These include the selling of prescription and counterfeit drugs without the knowledge of their pharmacists.

She noted that two pharmacists will appear in court today with one facing a charge of possessing counterfeit drugs.

Sabrina Chan So-kuen, executive director of the Hong Kong Association of the Pharmaceutical Industry, supports the government initiative requiring pharmacists to be around during drugstores' entire business hours.

``It is now very inconvenient for patients as they may not be able to buy the prescription drugs when the pharmacists are not in the store,'' Chan said.

Pharmaceutical Society of Hong Kong president Benjamin Kwong Yiu-sum said more logistical details are being mapped out to make sure dispensaries remain viable if they hire more pharmacists.

Chan said she also supports the proposal `in principle' but expressed fears there may not be enough pharmacists to meet a surge in demand. There are only around 1,500 licensed pharmacists in the city.

However, the committee is divided over whether at least half of the pharmacies' top management should be registered pharmacists.

Chang is batting for pharmacies to be majority owned by registered pharmacists, saying it would be difficult for pharmacists to keep an eye on pharmaceutical items and product sources unless they have full management control.

Such a requirement has been adopted for years in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, he said.

Kwong doubts if having pharmacists as sole owners or majority shareholders would improve business ethics and operations.

Under the current system, anyone who sells prescription drugs without doctors' prescriptions or improperly stores products faces a HK$100,000 fine and two years in jail.