Story: Medicines and remedies

Page 3. Prescription medicines, 1940s to 1990s

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Free prescriptions

Until the 1940s most people had to pay for the medicines their doctor prescribed for them. Some belonged to friendly societies (credit unions), which owned some pharmacies, and for an annual charge could get subsidised medicines through these pharmacies.

In 1941 the government introduced the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme as part of comprehensive social security reform. The government funded medicines prescribed by doctors so people no longer had to pay pharmacists for these medicines.

New medicines

From the 1940s, pharmaceutical companies invested heavily in research. The many new and effective medicines included penicillin (antibiotic), hydrocortisone (hormone), antidepressants, cardiovascular drugs such as medicines to lower blood pressure, tranquillisers, antipsychotics and contraceptive pills.

These new drugs replaced many older products. For example, the introduction of antibiotics meant that wounds and skin problems could be healed by swallowing a pill, reducing the need for traditional approaches like poultices.

Increasing costs

The number of prescriptions dispensed increased greatly, as did the cost to the government. The average person received 3.45 prescription items in 1943 and 9.08 in 1986. Patient charges for prescription medicines were introduced in 1985 and increased in 1988, 1991 and 1992. By 1992 those on higher incomes were paying up to $20 per prescription item.

Alternative remedies

The introduction of effective new drugs increased public enthusiasm for modern medicine, but towards the end of the 20th century some people became more critical. From the 1970s the women’s health movement played a key role in stimulating debate about the safety of medicines and related products, particularly contraceptives. Alternative or complementary remedies became more popular. In the 1970s and 1980s the number of health-food shops selling vitamins and other nutritional supplements, and homeopathic and naturopathic remedies, grew substantially.

How to cite this page:

Pauline Norris and Rosemary Beresford, 'Medicines and remedies - Prescription medicines, 1940s to 1990s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2024)

Story by Pauline Norris and Rosemary Beresford, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 23 May 2018, updated 1 Apr 2020