THE morning after pill should be available to women under the medical card scheme, pharmacists have claimed.
A survey by the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) found that 18% of women with a medical card chose to get their emergency contraception from a pharmacy as opposed to getting it free on prescription from their GP.
IPU vice-president Kathy Maher said pharmacists already offer seasonal flu vaccination services without charge to medical card patients - so a service for the morning after pill should be put in place.
"It is important to stress that this medication is for emergencies only," Ms Maher said.
"Pharmacists offer a thorough confidential consultation with the patient before the medication can be provided."
She added that women can get timely advice and treatment from community pharmacies since more and more are open throughout the weekend and late in the evening.
Results from the survey were announced today ahead of the IPU National Pharmacy Conference in Maynooth, Co Kildare.
Ms Maher said it was important to urge women to look after their sexual health and use precautions to avoid unwanted pregnancy.
She insisted that anyone who is concerned about their sexual health should ask a pharmacist for advice in the strictest confidence.
The IPU survey also revealed that 78% of consultations with pharmacists for the morning after pill take place within 24 hours of unprotected sex.
Some 33% of those consultations take place within 12 hours of intercourse.
Women aged 18 to 24 accounted for the majority - 47% - of consultations, followed by those aged between 25 and 30 who accounted for 23%.
Among the 18% of women with a medical card who got their emergency contraception from their pharmacy and not their doctor, 70% did so within 24 hours of unprotected sex, and 90% within 48 hours.
Monday was found to be the most common day for patient consultations, and the largest numbers were recorded in large urban areas such as Dublin and Cork.
The morning after pill was made available to patients from pharmacists without a prescription for the first time in February 2011.
Pharmacists advise it is most effective within 24 hours of having unprotected sex, but can work for up to 72 hours.