The Government is considering letting pharmacies play a greater role in the health system, as pharmacists call for more responsibility in tending to the sick.

Health Minister Tony Ryall said yesterday that discussions were under way with pharmacists about their playing a more active part in administering health care.

"The new Government does think pharmacists can play a greater role in the primary health-care system. They are a particularly important part of the family health team. Pharmacists already work closely with general practice ... They are an under-used tool."

He said some pharmacists in certain parts of the country did carry out medicine-use reviews and the system worked well.

The Pharmacy Guild says the swine flu scare has highlighted the role pharmacists play as health advisers - a role it says is not recognised by the district health board system.

Now pharmacists are asking to be given an expanded role as a first point of contact for sick people, in a move they say will cut hospital admissions and relieve pressure on DHBs.

A report commissioned by the guild indicates that the funding contract between pharmacies and DHBs - which is being reviewed - is flawed because it under-uses the potential of pharmacists to provide health care.

Pharmacists receive a dispensing fee for filling prescriptions but the guild proposes they be funded to provide four additional services to ease health-care costs.

These include nicotine replacement therapy programmes and medicine-use reviews, which involve monitoring patients' use of prescribed medication to improve compliance, ensure better results for them and cut the costs of unused medication.

The guild also wants pharmacists to be able to provide the emergency contraceptive pill and to help patients in managing chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma through health counselling and guidance on prescribed medicine use.

"We know that people go to their pharmacists for health information more than any other health professional," guild chief executive Annabel Young said.

"There is enormous potential to use their skills, expertise and community position to boost public health and reduce overcrowding in hospitals. There is an opportunity for pharmacists and DHBs to work together to both improve health-care delivery and reduce rising health-care costs.

"By taking on these additional roles, pharmacists will be helping to change consumer behaviour by empowering patients to take greater control of their health, reducing the overall burden on the health system."

Ms Young said more than 10 per cent of visits to emergency departments are due to accidental misuse of medication because patients are unsure about how to take them.

"This is unacceptable, unnecessary and could be dramatically reduced through pharmacists monitoring use of medication."

Such monitoring programmes would help cut drug wastage due to patients forgetting to take their medication.

In July 2007, 15 pharmacies participated in a campaign in which people were able to return unwanted medicines. More than 400kg of pharmaceuticals, with an estimated value of around $70,000, were returned.

Waikato DHB spokeswoman Mary-Ann Gill said the board this year had already set aside about $70 million to spend on the 80 pharmacies in its region.

She said the funding and planning committee would consider the pharmacists' proposals. "We've seen with the swine flu how important they are."