Do you ever get the feeling that the NHS would be doing just fine if it wasn't for all the pesky patients?
The latest cheerful suggestion from researchers is that children aged 13 should be allowed to obtain the contraceptive pill from pharmacies across the UK, without visiting their GP and without their parents' knowledge. Note I used the world 'children' because, well, that is what 13-year-old girls are.
Photo: Getty Images
The recommendation was included in an NHS report, following a pilot scheme in South East London. Offering the service to girls aged 13 and up saw a significant drop in the number of morning after pills being dished out. Thus, the authors of the report suggested: "Consider expanding the scheme to appropriate pharmacies in Lambeth and Southwark, across London and nationally, to shift activity out of GP practices."
Lovely turn of phrase that, isn't it? Yes, let's "shift" all the vulnerable young girls, having sex three years before it's legal, out to pharmacists and stop clogging up our GP switchboards!
I don't mean to do pharmacists a bad turn here – I have always found my pharmacist to be very helpful and professional, and I'm sure the average pharmacist would do their utmost to meet the Department of Health's safeguard that they should be "fully satisfied young people understand all the issues before they prescribe any contraceptive, including encouraging the young person to talk to their parents."
But the whole thing feels like yet another bitter pill, with a flavour of 'money-saving' rather than 'wellbeing' – and, in my opinion, that's quite serious when we are talking about children.
Unwanted teenage pregnancy is undoubtedly not a good thing and preventing it, rather obviously, IS a good thing. The pro argument is that if kids want to have sex, they will – and making the contraceptive pill easier to obtain, taking away any embarrassment or fear a young girl might feel by going to see her family doctor, will lessen the chances of her becoming pregnant accidentally.
But what about the counter argument? If this scheme is rolled out, will the NHS also do quantitive research into whether a more easily obtained pill leads to a rise in sexually transmitted diseases among immature teenagers?
Will they do qualitative research into whether underage girls feel even more pressurised by randy boyfriends to start sexual relationships, because the anonymity afforded by a chat in a chemist makes obtaining the pill easier than ever before? It feels like a long time ago now, but if memory serves me correctly, a boy thought he'd hit the flippin' jackpot if he found a girlfriend who was on the pill, meaning he didn't have to 'put a bag on it'.
Again, I do not doubt that pharmacists will tick all the official boxes and Rob Darracott, Chief Executive of Pharmacy Voice, has defended the profession's ability to take on the added responsibility. He said: "Just because the pharmacist operates from a retail environment, it doesn't mean the advice and support given is any less professional than that provided in other health settings. Pharmacists will refer patients to their GP or the community sexual and reproductive health services where appropriate."
Well, perhaps I am being a bit old-school, but I do think there is a sense of care and seriousness which comes from visiting your own GP, and talking privately in a room with a closed door, that might be lost in a retail environment, whatever Mr Darracott says.
And maybe even more relevant here is a certain authority a doctor might have that a pharmacist might not. We're talking about teens receiving advice about properly considering a sexual relationship – so is this going to be a bit like them discussing with the teaching assistant, rather than the headmaster, their ideas that GCSEs are a waste of time, and they're big enough to make their own decisions, thank you very much?
Pilot schemes are already being run elsewhere in the country and there is a scent of inevitability in the air that it'll be rolled out across the board. But while preventing unplanned teenage pregnancies is a good thing, this is a bigger issue than just that... isn't it?