Three in ten pharmacies are failing to give important safety advice to customers buying over-the-counter medicines, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, according to an undercover investigation by Which?
The consumer body sent undercover researchers to visit 78 independent and high-street pharmacies to see whether staff gave appropriate warnings about medicines that could cause harm if taken incorrectly.
One scenario involved mystery shoppers trying to buy both ibuprofen and Sudafed Sinus Pressure and Pain (phenylephrine/ibuprofen) from 12 multiples, 18 supermarkets and 6 independent pharmacies. They rated advice as ‘poor’ in 11 out of 36 visits.
During the transaction, just half of researchers were asked if they were taking any other medication, and only a quarter were asked if they’d had the medication before — two questions that Which? said its expert pharmacist highlighted as important. In a third of visits, researchers were not warned about the risks of taking the two medicines together.
In another scenario, the researchers found some pharmacies were selling large amounts of paracetamol “without asking any questions or giving warnings”. Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency best-practice guidelines state that sales should be limited to two 16-tablet packets.
Which? said its undercover researchers spoke to a mix of pharmacists and sales assistants but also highlighted that “you should be able to expect good advice from any member of staff who serves you in a pharmacy”.
Ben Clissit, editor of Which? magazine, said people would be “alarmed that some pharmacists are missing out on asking their customers the basics, particularly in light of recent NHS advice to use pharmacies as the first point of call for minor illnesses”.
NHS England recently launched “Stay Well Pharmacy”, one of its biggest campaigns to encourage a wider use of pharmacies for minor health concerns.
Ash Soni, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), said pharmacists “should ensure all their staff are providing the correct advice and information to patients.
“The majority of people were given the correct advice in this research; however, we are disappointed that in some cases they were not.
“Improving advice about medicines is vital across the NHS in order to ensure their safe and effective use, and when this doesn’t happen this needs to be addressed by training relevant staff.”
Soni added the RPS was “glad to hear that pharmacies contacted by Which? will be strengthening their staff training programmes”.
“Being asked questions about the medicines you are buying in a pharmacy should be part of a helpful conversation to ensure the medicine is right for you.”
A National Pharmacy Association spokesperson said that while most of the independent pharmacies in the Which? report were rated satisfactory or good for the advice given: “there’s no room for complacency because people expect high-quality advice at all times at their local pharmacy”.