No more free prescriptions for OTC medicines, say GPs

Two thirds of GPs think that the NHS should stop providing free prescriptions for drugs that are available OTC, a survey of 682 GPs has found.

Dr Anita Sharma: NHS should stop funding prescriptions for OTC medicines
Dr Anita Sharma: NHS should stop funding prescriptions for OTC medicines

Respondents to the GP magazine poll suggested that prescription charge exemptions need reviewing. They also called for a wider role for pharmacists giving OTC medicines to patients who are exempt from prescription charges.

In total, 68% of GPs responded 'yes' to the question 'Should the NHS stop providing free prescriptions for medicines available over the counter?'.

Many GPs responding to the poll said the NHS should not have to fund the appointments and staff time needed to make OTC drugs available at NHS expense.

'I am sick of prescribing paracetamol, which is so cheap,' one said. 'The people who ask for it are not the most needy.'

One GP said the current policy was 'madness': 'We have many patients attending a £15 appointment to get a scrip for £1 of medication.'

Another said that eliminating free prescriptions for drugs available OTC would help 'avoid unnecessary congestion in surgeries'.

GPs also argued that 'medicine cupboard' items should be regarded as a basic household expense.

'It should be part of a parent's responsibility for having children to keep Calpol or Nurofen in the house and not depend on a prescription for this,' one respondent said.

But other GPs warned that restricting NHS funding for OTC medicines would discriminate against people on low incomes.

'OTC medicines are beyond the means of some people,' one GP said.

Concerns were also raised that limiting access to paracetamol on the NHS would lead to patients demanding stronger medicines only available on prescription.

To restrict prescribing of some licensed drugs at NHS expense, the DH would need to add these drugs to the blacklist of 'drugs, medicines and services not to be ordered under a GMS contract'.

This 'blacklist' is set out in the GMS contract and in Part XVIIIA of the Drug Tariff, but has not been updated since it was compiled in 1985. It includes products that are now unavailable and, of those that are still available, most are branded OTC treatments for minor ailments.

Expert view: Dr Anita Sharma

Manchester GP Dr Anita Sharma, who sits on Oldham's medicines management committee, said the  NHS should stop funding all prescriptions for OTC medicines.

'There is nothing wrong with asking patients to buy paracetamol, sun lotion or anti-diarrhoeal drugs. I have been doing it for some time,' she said. 'It does take some time, but it is time well spent. It improves patients' knowledge and makes them more confident in managing their illness.'

She added: 'We need an honest debate between politicians, professionals and the public on the future of healthcare funding. The time has come to make our patients understand the NHS cannot pay for every treatment they want.'

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