Greater Use of Over-the-Counter Drugs for Consumer-Driven Health Care

July 15, 2014

One issue that is often overlooked in the discussion of patient-driven health care is access to therapeutic drugs. Specifically, should patients, as consumers, have greater choices in over-the-counter (OTC) drugs?

As recently as thirty years ago patients only had access to very basic OTC drugs such as aspirin, Tylenol and anti-acids. Now people can freely obtain a wide variety of drugs to treat ulcers, colds, the flu, as well as a much broader choice of pain medication.

With physician oversight, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determines which drugs should be administered by doctor-prescription and which can safely be purchased OTC. Unfortunately, the FDA has limited incentive to “switch” a drug from prescription to OTC. The agency must insure a drug is safe, does not require a doctor’s administration (e.g. intravenous drugs), and is not an abused “street drug.” Historically, the FDA has erred on the side of safety. Unfortunately, it can track drug complications, but has no way of determining how many patients were harmed by the FDA’s not approving a drug.

Evidence is now increasing that shows consumers in many cases have the resources to self-diagnose and choose their own medications without provider input. (Here)  This has the benefits of speeding up treatment, saving money on doctor appointments, and giving doctors more time to treat sicker patients. (Here)

Switching more prescription drugs to OTC will give patients, as consumers of health care, greater access and more choices for treatment at a reduced cost.