As the population in many developed countries is aging and information is more accessible, consumer health sector becomes more relevant and significant for all consumers whether they are healthy or sick. Within this sector, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and dietary supplements play an essential role in providing remedies for minor ailments without having to make a doctor’s appointment. I will discuss regulations, education, consumption, and globalization in the OTC drugs segment of the consumer health industry in this series of articles. This article gives a big picture view about the industry development, problems, and potential solutions.
The plus side about OTC medicines is that they make healthcare more accessible to different income groups and decrease healthcare costs on an aggregate level for the lower income consumers. Dietary supplements act as preventative care and decrease future healthcare costs as well. However the negative side is while the supply is blindly following the demand, but the intermediary step of education is skipped. Most consumers aren’t well informed about the active ingredients in the medicines they use and which ingredient should be taken for which symptoms. Thus, the OTC medicines become broader in their ability to cure symptoms, but this is not the ultimate solution since some active ingredients cannot be put together and consumers are still at risk of making uninformed decisions and potentially hurting themselves.
The solution: Education and regulation. Consumer health education doesn’t follow the pace of the growth in OTC medicine space. OTC medicine manufacturers try to educate consumers via packaging, information about active ingredients on their web site, and mass communication tools. However, all of these activities are done with return on investment in mind. Non-profit organizations that organize events use technology to reach out to consumers, and educate them about their health within the consumer health industry context. However, their reach is limited by their resources, ability to appeal to their audience, build legitimacy, and bridge the gap between the suppliers and the consumers of OTC medicines.
In light of these issues, consumer health education should be a combined effort of the government, NGOs, and corporations. Government can ensure the massive reach by implementing school programs, public seminars about healthcare. This would be especially important in low-income communities. NGOs can keep the innovation element by integrating technological advances to public programs. Corporations can provide financial and marketing resources for consumer education on OTC drugs and invest in their long-term profitability. Even though all of these are partially happening today, the combined effort would equal more than the sum of the individuals in this case and clearly communicate messages about consumer health.
The second part of the solution is regulations, which have been a major hindrance in many countries. A simple logic would show that in terms of healthcare affordability and accessibility, OTC medicines would be the most useful in emerging markets. Governments in emerging markets have the largest base of low-income population and they bear the costly burden for supporting low-income consumers’ healthcare needs. Nevertheless, governments in many emerging markets have regulations against OTC drugs due to education and liability concerns. People need to get prescriptions even for minor ailments. In that case, regulations become hindrances when most needed. In these countries, a long-term program starting with consumer education on health and launch of OTC medicines would substantially reduce governments’ healthcare costs and improve the country’s healthcare system for people from all income levels.
In developed markets, government regulations let the consumer health industry thrive to a greater extent, but there are still areas where regulations could be alleviated to allow multi-national corporations to standardize their products and move innovations faster between different developed markets. This will create economies of scale for the corporations, decrease costs, and make OTC medicines more effective and accessible.
Despite the deficiencies in the OTC medicine market, consumer health sector growth is still strong. In order to overcome those efficiencies, private and public sectors need to work together and increase consumer awareness about the OTC medicines. Additionally, government regulations need to be adapted to let this market safely grow and achieve the long-term goal of lower healthcare costs and affordable healthcare for all.