Wider range of over-counter drugs 'could save €75m'


ALLOWING PHARMACISTS to sell a wider range of drugs to patients over the counter without the need for prescriptions could save the health service up to €75 million a year, according to a new report.

Pharmacists and drug companies have called for an enhanced role for “self-care” in the health system to allow patients greater scope to treat minor ailments.

The publication of the Self-Care First document by the industry comes as another survey shows that Ireland has some of the highest drug prices in Europe. The cost of prescription drugs in Ireland was the highest of 10 European countries surveyed for the report prepared by Scandinavian researchers.

Irish prices were 45 per cent higher than in Sweden; in contrast drug costs in the UK were only 72 per cent of those in Sweden.

The price differential was highest for prescription drugs that were no longer patent protected; Irish prices were 51 per cent higher than in Sweden, again the highest of the 10 countries.

The newer the product, the higher the margin by which Irish prices exceeded the average, the researchers found. The study also found a lower range of products sold in Ireland compared with other countries and noted the relative absence of parallel imports into the Irish market.

Talks between the Department of Health and manufacturers of branded medicines are ongoing, with sources close to the negotiations saying that they are likely to produce a deal that could knock over €100 million a year off the State’s annual drugs bills.

According to the Self-Care First document published last week, Ireland has one of the highest incidents of minor ailments. Yet conditions such as cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes and obesity, which constitute the biggest burden on the health bill, are often caused by known and avoidable risk factors, such as an unhealthy diet, a lack of physical activity and smoking.

The group behind the report, which includes the Irish Pharmacy Union, representatives of the pharmaceutical industry and university-based specialists, says self-care is not only about treating illness but also about encouraging people to take better care of their health.

The study recommends an expanded role for pharmacists in health promotions and in advising patients on managing their medicines. The group wants some prescription-only medicines reclassified to pharmacy only, a proposal that is unlikely to find favour with GPs.

It has also suggested the establishment of a minor ailment scheme to provide free treatment of common illnesses to medical card patients.

“Pharmacists are already counselling patients through health promotions, medicine reviews and chronic disease management but creating a proper framework for promoting self-care could transform our role over the coming years,” president of the Irish Pharmacy Union, Rory O’Donnell, said.