Are we selling our souls Over The Counter?

There's something beautifully logical and satisfying about a good Over The Counter consultation.

I know what you're thinking, and yes, I should get out more. But it is true. The way I think of it is in a stepwise approach, using a systematic series of questions to eliminate products leaving you with a limited number of options to recommend. I suspect the way a patient views it may vary somewhat from "hey! I'm really being listened to!" to "oh for goodness sake shut up, I'm going to be late for the bus.".

A good consultation goes like this:
 

Step One: Establish the symptoms and check diagnosis.

Fairly self explanatory: to decide what medicine to select, I need to know what I am trying to treat in the first place. I'm also finding out if the patient has any danger symptoms which might be suggestive of a serious illness, so I can signpost them appropriately to the right services. 
Once I know what the problem is, I think about what products are available to treat it over the counter

Step Two: Find out about the patient's medical history.


I'm looking for anything that means the patient is at high risk of complications of the problem, meaning they need to be referred. I'm also thinking of the cautions and contra-indications of the available products to treat the problem and eliminating any products that these apply to.

Step Three: Find out about the patient's drug history.
 

I'm thinking about what drug interactions each of the available products has, and whether or not they are relevant to what the patient is already taking. I'm also thinking about whether or not any of the patient's medicines contain the same or similar ingredients to any of the OTC products- i don't want to risk an overdose. I then eliminate any products that have relevant drug interactions.

Step Four: Consider the evidence.


At this point, there may be only a couple of products that are suitable for the patient. If there aren't any left, I refer them to their GP or other appropriate healthcare provider.Out of the ones that are left, I think about which ones the evidence says are more effective and safe and I'll steer the patient towards that one. If there's no good evidence for at treatment, I'm always clear with the customer about it. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don't, but its an obligation that I think needs to be done in order to sell medicines honestly and with integrity.
 

Step Five: Consider the price. 
 

Where two products are equally efficacious, I always recommend the cheapest. Because I don't want to waste a patient's hard earned cash, and I think patients appreciate that.
 

Step Six: Counsel the patient.

This involves giving them all the useful little snippets of information about how to use the product effectively and -crucially- safely. It might be pointing out that the product contains paracetamol, or that it causes drowsiness, or that it works best taken at a particular time of day. 


Hopefully all pharmacists will recognize this process, although everyone does-and should- have their own style to go about it with. These sorts of encounters can be really satisfying for both pharmacist and patient, and its often in these moments that I have the most amount of pride in my role. Here I am, giving the patient trusted, evidence based advice which will hopefully bmake the patient feel better. However, you also need a willing patient, and I'm finding more and more often that patients are unwilling to engage in such exchanges. I've also noticed through personal experience as a customer, that some pharmacies are using what i consider to be a cop-out approach to OTC sales. An offhand "you should read the leaflet" whilst I'm handing over my money does not, in my opinion, constitute provide expert advice on medicines. 

So why am I on about this at the moment? Well, there's the Which? report, which has found a disappointing quality of over-the-counter information being provided in some pharmacies. Others have given a more detailed analysis of this report, so I won't go into it too much, except to say that yes, there are methodological problems with it. However, it may well be indicative that in a world where pharmacists are under massive pressure to deliver services and dispense ever-increasing numbers of prescriptions whilst working longer hours for less pay, some are starting to lose pride in the basics. Its understandable. In the rush to get everything done, its easy to start seeing the patient as an inconvenience, who we need to get in and out of the door  as quickly as possible. I'm not saying this is what is happening in every pharmacy or in every case, but based on how I used to feel when I managed a pharmacy, I suspect it is a factor. 

The other reason I've been thinking about this is the issue of self-selection of pharmacy medicines. In my humble opinion, this is a giant backwards step for the pharmacy profession. Self selection reduces the process I described above down to a bare minimum, and reduces the possibility of introducing quality into it. Sure, we can say there will be information on the packs, but lets be realistic about this. Patients very rarely read the leaflets before purchasing, and if they have to do so in the middle of an aisle in a high street pharmacy or supermarket, i think it becomes even more unlikely. In my experience, if a patient has a preconceived idea of the product they want to buy, its very difficult to persuade them otherwise, even when there is a safety concern with their chosen product.

I remember one customer asking for Sudafed, when she was also taking phenelzine. A combination of these drugs could provoke a potentially fatal hypertensive crisis, but no matter how much I explained this, the customer was adamant that she still wanted it. It turned out her daughter, a medical student, had advised her to use this product, but when I spoke to the daughter it turned out she thought that Sudafed just had paracetamol in it.

Now imagine this situation in a self-selection age. The customer picks up the pack, wanders to the pharmacist, who then has to try to wrangle it from their fingertips in order to ensure their safety. Okay, maybe not that dramatic, but the fact that the customer has the product in their hand, and has been able to "choose" it themselves, reinforces to them that it is their right to buy it. But in pharmacy, the fact of the matter is that the customer isn't always right, and its poor customer service- and downright dangerous- to always allow them to think so. 

Imagine that self-selection scenario is also coupled with a curt "read the information leaflet first" as the only form of counselling. Why would the patient bother reading the leaflet, when she already thinks its safe for her to use? And so, what appeared to be a quick, convenient shop for the customer could so easily turn into a fatal drug interaction.

The shopping experience is becoming more and more depersonalised. With chip and pin and contactless payments, you barely even have to glance at the cashier during a transaction- if you're even in contact with a cashier at all. This may be fine when you're buying groceries, but medicines are not commodities. We're different to other shops in that the wares we sell can have fatal effects if they're not used in accordance with expert knowledge and instruction. We simply cannot safely reduce the over the counter consultation to the bare minimum of words required to take money from people as quickly as possible. 

Of course, its not like we pharmacists, will get that much say in the matter, and we'll carry on regardless if self selection goes ahead. Indeed it seems to be a near certainty, despite support from "very few" pharmacists. And it may even be the case that such scenarios never happen in real life. But all I want to do is make medicines safer for people, and to do so we have to identify areas of risk before they happen, and take action to minimise them. 

When it comes to patient care, just hoping the worst doesn't happen isn't good enough.

Hxxx