Reality Check: Should some prescription drugs become available over-the-counter?

Changing only three types of drugs from prescription to over-the-counter could save Canada $1 billion a year, according to a new study, but does an economic boost outweigh potential health risks?

Heartburn medication, erectile dysfunction medication and birth control pills were examined by the Conference Board of Canada. The three were chosen because they are being evaluated for, or have already made the switch to over-the-counter status in other countries.

The study states making the drugs available without a prescription would save money by lowering drug costs and reducing doctor’s visits.

But experts caution against taking the easy route when it comes to medication.

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Dr. Jerilynn C. Prior, founder and scientific director of the Centre for Menstruation Cycle and Ovulation Research CeMCOR, said birth control pills “should not be made over the counter.”

“The combined hormonal contraception… (can) have a profound effect on women’s bodies,” said Prior.

The birth control pill in its various forms, while generally safe, has been linked to serious complications. A doctor’s judgement is necessary for guidance, said Prior.

“It should not be treated like Tylenol or ibuprofen. It simply alters too much of women’s physiology.”

And while skipping a trip to the doctor might sound convenient, a person can be missing out on vital face time with a doctor said Steve Morgan, professor of health policy at the University of British Columbia.

“It gets them to a doctor. It’s gets them having a conversation,” said Morgan.

Someone going to the doctor for a simple prescription can be a “pathway” to diagnosing other conditions, Morgan said.

“Not going to a doctor is not always a good thing,” said Morgan.

“It can be said it can mean savings but it also can be lost opportunities for conversations about general health.”

Pharmacists are simply not prepared to fill the gap, Morgan said.

And when it comes to pricing, the generic version of a prescription drug is often less expensive than an over-the-counter product.

“One of the things that happens when drugs get switched to over the counter, unfortunately many consumers can be lulled into believing the brand is better than the generic form,” said Morgan.

Many drug plans insist on the generic version of prescriptions since “they’re all chemically equivalent,” said Morgan.

“It can be a challenge in terms of patient safety and quality, but it also can be a challenge regarding the presumption of possible savings,” said Morgan.

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