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According to the National Alliance of State Pharmacy Associations, more than a dozen states have expanded what pharmacists can do to include testing and treating people for illnesses such as strep throat, flu, and urinary tract infections and preventing HIV. Some states allow pharmacists to prescribe oral contraceptives or drugs to help people quit smoking. Typically, pharmacists have prescribing authority under agreements with doctors or rules called statewide protocols.

But a report by Kaiser Health News says that a limited number of states have gone further, allowing pharmacists to prescribe medications on their own to treat a broad range of conditions for which there are rapid point-of-care tests, if it’s appropriate based on clinical guidelines.

We’re seeing more states looking at direct prescribing authority now as opposed to collaborative practice agreements,” said Allie Jo Shipman, director of state policy at the National Alliance of State Pharmacy Associations. The alliance offers point-of-care testing and point-of-care treating training programs for pharmacists and pharmacy students.

The Biden administration, which has leaned on pharmacies to help battle the covid pandemic by administering vaccines and tests, is now calling for a limited number of pharmacies with retail clinics that employ doctors or other health care workers with prescribing authority to directly provide medication rapidly to people who test positive for the virus. The “test-to-treat” program is designed to make sure that people with covid get a course of antiviral medication quickly because it is most effective if used within five days of when someone shows symptoms.

But physicians don’t necessarily welcome this development. Doctor groups have long objected to the taking on of certain types of patient care by pharmacists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other nondoctors unless it is overseen by or approved by physicians.

In November, the American Medical Association, which represents doctors, announced that since 2019, it had successfully opposed more than 100 legislative actions that would have expanded nonphysicians’ scope of practice, called scope creep. The group also issued a statement criticizing the Biden administration’s plan to allow pharmacy-based clinics to prescribe covid antiviral medications, saying that the program poses a danger to patient safety and risks negative health outcomes. And the AMA unsuccessfully opposed a federal decision to let pharmacists give covid vaccines to children younger than 18.

Meanwhile, the American College of Physicians, which represents internists, announced it “opposes independent pharmacist prescriptive privileges and initiation of drug therapy outside of a collective practice agreement, physician standing order or supervision, or similar arrangement.”

The AMA didn’t respond to questions about independent pharmacist prescribing, and the ACP declined to comment on its policy.

But are physicians correct that patient safety is at risk if a doctor isn’t involved in prescribing decisions? Pharmacists say that they want to provide care in line with their training and skills and that they know their limits. And they note that timely prescribing is vital for treating covid and other infectious diseases.

They also note that pharmacists are increasingly part of the multidisciplinary clinical teams that direct patient care at hospitals and in health care systems.

Pharmacists are the professionals that are the most trained to deal with drug interactions,” said Rita Jew, a pharmacist who is president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, a nonprofit that focuses on preventing medication errors. “We monitor patients for both efficacy and side effects. So from that perspective, it’s not a safety concern. Delay in treatment is a concern.”

Many pharmacists are eager to expand their menu of patient services, but payment remains a problem. Pharmacists aren’t generally recognized as service providers under Medicare and don’t typically receive payment when they spend time evaluating, testing, or treating patients. Many private insurers follow Medicare’s lead on payment.

Dr. Jeffrey Singer, a general surgeon and a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote a recent blog post suggesting that doctors who object to nonphysician prescribing may be more worried about competition than patient safety.

“Rather than work to prevent laws that could meet the needs of patients, the onus is on the profession to persuade people that they need to see a doctor,” Singer said in an interview, adding that he has relied on pharmacists’ expertise in his practice. “I ask them, ‘Is there any particular problem with this drug?’ They have the software. And that’s what they’re trained to do.”