Whose control is it, anyway?

by danmalleck

So those upstart pharmacists and nurse practitioners want to edge in on doctors’ business!

Recently, across the country, various health practitioners have been seeking to expand their scope of practice. This is the legally defined range of activities they are allowed do. In the health system, especially, it is a highly contentious issue. Because unlike other professionals, whose work is also restricted and protected by law, when health professionals do stuff, it affects people’s health.  And just ask any health ethicist. Unlike buying a car, or getting your house painted, or even renovating your bathroom, the transaction you have with your health professional affects you in a way that can affect your well being,  quality of life, and sense of self.

We can understand scopes of practice by looking at history.

The scopes of practice for health professionals have been developed over decades, if not centuries.  In Ontario, in the middle of the nineteenth century, doctors and pharmacists, argued over what activities should be their specific areas of authorities.  Generally physicians won these arguments, since the pharmacy laws which gave pharmacists legal right to compound and distributed a specifically listed set of substances, normally exempted physicians from those rules (docs often carried drugs with them and it was often, in a rural country as ours was, much more efficient for them to sell or give drugs during treatment then to require a patient to head to the local pharmacy).

Some physicians exploited this loophole.  Some opened their own pharmacies, finding these were much more lucrative than a medical practice. A pharmacy could sell other goods that it might not be so expedient for a physician to carry in his saddle bags, so if you could build a good solid mercantile business, you were in the money.

At the same time, some pharmacists also infringed on the physicians’ domain. A customer comes in and has a cough and is looking for  a remedy.  What do you do?  Send them to a doctor to get a ‘scrip for a cough medicine? Or compound some simple syrup, cherry flavour and opium and voila, cough medicine (this would probably be what the doc would prescribe anyway)?  Well, to the docs, this was a violation of the legal scope of practice. To the pharmacists, it was just serving their customer. The courts were divided, but most saw selling something to a patient to deal with a simple symptom was not the same as diagnosing and prescribing.

There were other issues of intersection, and I’m currently exploring them in more detail.  I’ll try to post more information and thoughts when I find more great examples.

The point, though, in respect to current debates about scope of practice, is complex.  

Scopes of practice were contested, debated, lobbied for, and not always established with 100% control.  When doctors in Ontario saw the legislation passed that gave them professional status and control over who would be allowed to practice medicine, they had to share this responsibility with homeopaths and practitioners of a few other types of alternative modalities.  Homeopathy was popular, especially among elites, and the idea of an absolute monopoly over any single occupation rubbed our laissez faire-ist ancestors the wrong way.

So these current debates are part of a process of evolution and change

But when it comes to drugs, there is another historical process at work: the construction of danger embedded in the prescription.

When pharmacy laws were passed they had two purposes. The first was to control access to “poisons” which were being used purposely or mistakenly to kill.

Suicides, murders, accidents. These were sometimes linked to drugs.

Strychnine, arsenic, opium. These were the poisons.

Taken in high enough doses, they’ll kill you. But they were also medicines.  

So the pharmacy law was designed to place control over highly dangerous drugs in the hands of professionals who knew how to use them. And since usually pharmacists were also compounding remedies (a doctor would send a recipe and the pharmacists would mix it) there was some skill in the actual process of assembling, measuring, etc. 

But what happens when something becomes controlled? Well, the idea that medicines should be controlled by professionals expands the scope of that control. By the end of the century, there were more arguments for more control over substances that, while not poisonous, might in some ways cause some damage to a patient.  The range of “controlled substances” expanded as the pharmacopoeia did. Why is an antibiotic a prescription drug?  It’s not likely going to kill you. But if you take it too often, it will become ineffective. How about oxycontin?  Well, it is an opiate, so it might kill you, but it will more likely addict you.  Both of these, of course, carry their own dangers, and some very significant ones, but they are not poison in the traditional sense. They are, however, controlled.

So when docs, nurses, pharmacists and others begin to talk about who should control the prescription and administration of certain drugs, pay attention to the way the idea of danger emerges.  What is dangerous?  How dangerous? How much risk is there in a different professional administering an antibiotic or a vaccine?  And is that danger so severe that the practice should be strictly controlled to one professional? And should one profession have that much authority?

It’s worth considering.  Because these ideas of danger, control, abuse, misuse, and professional authority are infused with complex meanings. The meanings are historically grounded, and evolve and even transmogrify. As these debates continue, ask what is really being discussed.

And then look to an historian to unpack it for you.

(c) 2014, Dan Malleck