Pharmacy advice in need of a health check

Some high street pharmacies are giving customers poor advice and independent pharmacies fall behind the big chains and supermarkets.

Which? sent trained undercover mystery shoppers into 122 pharmacies across the UK and our expert panel of three experienced pharmacists rated the advice they received. We found that some pharmacies are giving out advice without asking the right questions, with potentially serious consequences for their customers’ health.

Advice from pharmacies was given an unsatisfactory rating in around four in ten (43%) visits overall, a 9% increase from our 2008 investigation. We also saw a difference in the quality of advice given from different types of pharmacies, with independent pharmacies giving unsatisfactory advice more than half of the time (58%) compared to a third of the time (34%) for the leading chains and supermarkets. This is a concern we raised in our last investigation, over five years ago.

The advice given in one of our scenarios – a customer taking Warfarin and requesting a medicine for heartburn called Pantoloc Control – saw the worst results with 71% of the visits rated unsatisfactory. Pharmacies should have asked basic but important questions before selling this previously prescription-only drug because it can interfere with Warfarin levels in the blood, and can lead to bleeding problems and even hospitalisation.

We also found that counter assistants who dealt with our mystery shoppers without consulting a pharmacist were significantly more likely to give poor advice than those who involved a pharmacist (67% compared to 27% respectively).

Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd, said:

“Too many pharmacies are still failing their customers, with some potentially serious consequences.

“We’re pleased that the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the General Pharmaceutical Council recognise our concerns and are taking steps to tackle these issues. Consumers should be able to trust the advice they receive from any pharmacy they visit.”

In a separate snapshot study, we also discovered that two-thirds (13 out of 20) of pharmacies did not follow the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s (RPS) guidance by failing to clearly explain that there is no scientific evidence that homeopathy works.

Notes to editors:

1. Trained mystery shoppers secretly recorded their visits to 122 pharmacies across the UK in January and February 2013, acting out one of three scenarios: asking for Imigran Recovery for migraine, asking for something to treat diarrhoea following a holiday; and asking for Pantoloc Control for heartburn. A panel of three experienced pharmacists rated the advice given on the visits.

How the pharmacies compared overall:

Companies rated from lowest to highest number of unsatisfactory visits.

A satisfactory visit was one that covered the minimum quality of advice to keep the patient safe, while a good visit provided more advice and explanation. An unsatisfactory visit did not meet our set criteria, such as asking questions to check patient safety.

2. Trained mystery shoppers also recorded visits to 20 pharmacies acrossEnglandin January and February 2013, including big chains and independents, where they asked specific questions about a homeopathic remedy, and also for a homeopathic remedy for a cough that had lasted over a month. A panel of three experienced pharmacists rated the advice given on the visits.

3. We shared our findings with both the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the General Pharmaceutical Council.  We are pleased they both recognised the concerns we raised and are looking at increasing monitoring, and are planning a joint event in the summer with companies, training providers and medicine manufacturers.

4.  This is the third Which? pharmacies investigation in a decade – the first one took place in 2004 and the second in 2008.

To view the full investigation, please visit the downloads section

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