What a prescription is
A prescription is a legal document that health practitioners write for a pharmacist to dispense a specific medicine.
You can’t legally obtain prescription-only medicines without that document.
Which medicines need a prescription
You need a prescription for medicines that have higher risks, such as:
- potentially serious side effects
- more complicated ways of taking them (such as injections)
- the potential for addiction or misuse.
The need for a prescription ensures that, before you take a medicine, your health practitioner can:
- assess your needs and condition
- consider any other medicine you take to avoid negative interactions
- determine the most appropriate medicine for you
- explain how to take your medicine and any potential risks or side effects.
These medicines include, for example:
- antibiotics – as they are effective only for certain conditions, which a health practitioner needs to assess, and it’s important not to overuse antibiotics
- medicines that need regular assessment to make sure their ongoing effectiveness – such as those that treat blood pressure, glucose levels, cancer, mental health conditions and others
- injectable medicines, such as insulin – so that your health practitioner can explain how to administer it
- ‘controlled medicines’ – such as opioids, which are critical to managing severe acute pain, but carry significant risk of addiction.
State and territory laws govern the use of some prescription medicines in each jurisdiction.
The Australian Government subsidises the cost of many prescription medicines under the:
- Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), which is available to Australians with a Medicare card
- Repatriation PBS (RPBS), which subsidises the cost of some medicines for eligible veterans.
This makes medicines more affordable.
All PBS-subsidised medicines are prescription medicines, but the PBS doesn’t subsidise all prescription medicines. It covers about 80% of all prescription medicines.
For some PBS-subsidised medicines, your prescriber might need written authority approval before they can prescribe them.
Read more about prescription medicines.
You might be able to claim a portion of the cost of a private prescription back from your private health insurance. The level of cover provided depends on your health fund and policy.
Who can prescribe medicines
Only authorised health practitioners – such as doctors, dentists, optometrists, nurse practitioners and midwife practitioners – can prescribe medicines.
To prescribe medicines, health practitioners must:
- have completed accredited prescribing education and training that is consistent with their scope of practice
- be registered with the national board for their specialty
be approved under the National Health Act 1953 for prescriptions of PBS or RPBS medicines
- be approved under relevant state and territory legislation and regulation.
Who can dispense prescription medicines
Only authorised health practitioners – such as pharmacists, doctors, dentists, optometrists, nurse practitioners and midwife practitioners – can dispense prescription-only medicines. This includes prescription medicines in hospitals.
Pharmacists need a valid prescription before they can dispense a prescription-only medicine. There are some exceptions for those who are in immediate need of a medicine but have no way of obtaining a prescription, or as allowed by state or territory rules for emergency supply.
What prescriptions look like
Your health practitioner can provide you with either:
- a handwritten prescription
- a printed prescription
- an electronic prescription to your phone or direct to your preferred pharmacy.
Prescriptions must all include some mandatory information, including:
- the prescriber's name, phone number and address (and prescriber number, where relevant)
- your name and address
- whether you are a concession or general patient
- whether the prescription is under the PBS or RPBS, if relevant
- the item, dose, form, strength, quantity and instructions for use
- the prescriber’s signature and date
- the maximum number of repeats (how many times you can get the medicine on the same prescription before needing to see your prescriber again).
Your prescriptions can be included in My Health Record to help your health practitioners make more informed decisions about your health care.
Active ingredient prescribing
For most PBS prescriptions, prescribers use the active ingredient rather than the brand name. This makes it easier for you to:
- choose a cheaper generic or biosimilar medicine, if available.
- check whether you are taking the same active ingredient in another medicine, to prevent double dosing
- check that you’re not allergic to any active ingredients
- check for potential negative interactions with other medicines you are taking
- find the right medicine when overseas, even if brands differ.
In some cases, your health practitioner will prescribe a specific brand, and tick the ‘brand substitution not permitted’ box on the prescription. This could be because you might have a negative reaction to other brands.
Your health practitioner might also prescribe a specific brand, without ticking the ‘brand substitution not permitted’ box if:
- the medicine contains 4 or more active ingredients
- it is impractical to prescribe by active ingredient for any other reason.
Read more about active ingredient prescribing.
While critical to helping patients, some medicines are more likely to be misused – for example, because they can become addictive. They include opioids, benzodiazepines, barbiturates and amphetamines.
To ensure patients who need them can access these medicines, while reducing potential misuse, we monitor their use through the National Real Time Prescription Monitoring.
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