Selling over-the-counter (OTC) medicines in a pharmacy can be daunting for a pharmacy student. This is especially true when it’s your first day on placement and you only recognise ‘Iglü Gel’ from that time you had a mouth ulcer. Having been confronted with the seemingly unachievable task of learning about all the OTC medicines, and somewhat competently completed a summer placement, I think these five are the most important tips (unfortunately not every customer is looking for Iglü):
1. Look past the advertising
Community pharmacies are in the retail business – it may be heavily regulated, but advertising still has a role to play – it’s your job to look past this when recommending products. Looking at the active ingredient is the most useful method you have to ascertain if a product is appropriate. Just by looking at the active ingredient you reduce an endless list of OTC products into a few relevant categories.
2. Take a notebook
You’ve looked at the active ingredient, great, but you still don’t know why cinnarizine is more appropriate than any other medicine. This isn’t knowledge you’re going to learn in the brief period from picking up the box to returning to the customer, but what you can do is write things down once the customer has left. This will form a concise list of products that need to be looked into, and learning the pharmacology should be much easier with experience handling the medicines.
3. Ask for help
If you don’t know what the customer is asking for then just ask someone more experienced than yourself. I found this was particularly the case with recently declassified prescription-only medicines still kept in the dispensary – an issue discussed in more depth here. The pharmacy team would much rather you ask them than give the wrong advice to a customer. Just remember to write useful things down, so you aren’t asking the same questions repeatedly.
4. Speaking to customers
In practice customers don’t always tell you exactly what you need to know in order to recommend a product. Using a questioning system like WWHAM (WHO is the patient? WHAT are the symptoms? HOW long has the patient had the symptoms? What ACTION has already been taken? Is the patient taking any other MEDICINES?) will greatly improve your chances of being helpful. Even if you don’t know enough to competently recommend a product, you’ll at least have enough information ask the pharmacist, without them having to personally speak to the customer.
5. Don’t worry so much
There will be awkward moments: customers won’t wait to speak to the pharmacist; you’ll forget what ‘A’ is for in WWHAM; you may even recommend the wrong product, only to be corrected by the pharmacist. Not knowing what you’re doing is going to be the best way to learn what you should be doing.
Working on the healthcare counter during a summer placement isn’t the most glamorous task when you’re eager to learn – no destruction of medicines, no flicking through the BNF for obscure interactions, and no debating the ethics of a situation – but, you will gain essential experience with OTC brands that can’t be taught in lectures.