Walking a fine line

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Consumer “tension” over the role of pharmacists and scientific evidence when purchasing non-prescription medicines

Australian consumers are conflicted about the importance of scientific evidence when purchasing non-prescription medicines, and are unsure about the role of pharmacists in this process, a new study has found. 

A survey of 1731 adults found “apparent tension” between the desire for evidence-based treatments and a consumer’s right to choose their own treatment, regardless of evidence.

The study, by researchers from the University of Newcastle, NSW, was the first in Australian to explore the perception of consumers towards both purchasing OTC medicines and complementary medicines, and the role that evidence plays in their decision-making process.

Effectiveness and safety were the most important factors when purchasing these products, the survey revealed. However the most common method of determining effectiveness was personal experience and not scientific evidence. The latter was valued by only half of the respondents, compared to 88% for the former.

While 58% of respondents said they thought it was wrong for pharmacies to sell products that lacked scientific evidence, a similar number agreed it was up to the individual to decide which on’es they should purchase, even if there was no evidence for their efficacy.   

One key finding for pharmacy was the importance of advice provision – 77% of respondents regarded the crucial value of buying these products in a pharmacy was the availability of advice.

“Pharmacists were considered similar to doctors as reliable sources of information about medicine efficacy,” the authors said.

However, the survey showed that pharmacists need to walk a fine line between providing advice that patients sought, without stepping to far into what they perceived to be their personal decision-making autonomy.

The respondents indicated that they didn’t “necessarily expect, nor want pharmacies to be limited to products with scientific evidence; however pharmacists should assist consumers to make informed choices by providing evidence-based treatments and advice without unduly restricting patient autonomy,” the authors said.

“An additional challenge for pharmacists will be ensuring appropriate advice on non-prescription medicines is also provided by pharmacy assistants,” they said. 

Despite this, respondents were less likely to agree that pharmacies were associated with safe and effective treatments.

“The study highlights conflict in consumer decision-making between scientific evidence and patient autonomy,” the authors said.

The study was published in the International Journal of Pharmacy Practice.

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