I discussed the emerging trend of OTC drugs in developed markets and potential implications of this trend in Part 1 of this series. This article shifts the focus primarily to consumer education about OTC drugs.
Unlike prescription drugs, OTC drugs can be purchased without making a visit to a doctor. This doesn’t mean that consumers shouldn’t consult your physician before buying OTC drugs, but it means that they can buy these drugs without making a doctor’s appointment. This simple differentiator for OTC drugs implies a tremendous increase in accessibility, consumer empowerment, and difficulty in making consumer education policy.
One of the most important elements of consumer health education is the availability of information about drugs’ active ingredients, uses, and warnings on the label. FDA explains this as the Monograph where active ingredients, labeling, and final formulation testing are regulated by the agency in the US (for detailed information about how the approval process works click here). The label is used as a communication and consumer education tool. The consumer can compare different products based on types and amounts of active ingredients, usage occasions, and warnings for side effects. Labeling regulations are aimed to facilitate consumer self-treatment and self-management by providing the necessary information on the package.
Secondly, some retailers that have a wide range of OTC drugs also have in-store pharmacies. This is a great resource for quick and reliable information where consumers can learn about differences between drugs, potential risks, and situations where they need to consult a doctor. In the US, drug store chains like Walgreens and CVS and big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target have pharmacies where consumers can get assistance about OTC drugs.
Thirdly, consumers have access to many kinds of information from the media. This is the most prevalent and tricky part about consumer health education because it is hard to filter through the promotional vague statements to understand the fact-based information about OTC drugs. Even though there are regulations around what product web sites, TV ads, and other promotional statements can claim, the line between safe and sound information and subtle connotations behind promotional remarks is very thin. This means when a brand launches a campaign around the effectiveness of one product of the brand, the consumer should be aware that other products of the same brand might have different active ingredients, uses, and warnings. Commercially driven statements might not always serve pure educational purposes and consumers can be confused due to the difficulty of making the right calls about OTC drugs and so their health.
Lastly, consumers share information by leaving reviews on products they purchase and use. Reviews can be very educational for consumers especially when they are trying to evaluate significant side effects previous users experienced or product’s efficaciousness. However, OTC drug reviews can be misleading as well. Every user’s case is different and many people don’t leave very detailed information about their medical history when they review the product, so it is very difficult for the consumer to assess her situation and the product’s potential benefits/harms based on online reviews.
Consumer health education mechanisms exist in many different forms and information about OTC drugs reaches consumers from various channels. Nevertheless, consumers need more education to filter this information, optimize self-treatment, and utilize OTC drugs’ to their full potential. As OTC drugs industry stabilizes, hopefully all stakeholders including the government, manufacturers and consumers will find better ways to educate general public about self-treatment options.
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