Surveillance and uncertainty: community pharmacy responses to over the counter medicine abuse

Health Soc Care Community. 2013 May;21(3):254-62. doi: 10.1111/hsc.12012. Epub 2013 Jan 16.


The sale of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines from community pharmacies offers important opportunities for members of the public to access medicines and self-treat conditions. They are increasingly recognised, however, as having the potential for abuse and harm despite their perceived relative safety. This study reports on a qualitative study that explored the experiences and views of community pharmacy staff in relation to current practices and concerns, management and support relating to OTC medicine abuse. Semi-structured interviews were undertaken with a purposive sample of ten pharmacists and seven medicines counter assistants in the United Kingdom. Analysis of interviews indicated that a range of medicines was implicated, including opiates, sedative antihistamines, laxatives and decongestants. A surveillance role was apparent for assistants, who placed emphasis on regulations, procedure and monitoring frequency of purchases to manage abuse, with referral on to pharmacists. Frequency of purchase was central to assistants' definition of those suspected of OTC medicine abuse, which pharmacists also utilised as well as a distinction between intentional abuse and unintentional medicine misuse. A lack of information about customers, easy access to, and poor communication between community pharmacies were emergent barriers to pharmacists providing more support. Many appeared uncertain of referral options or how pharmacists could effectively stop the problem of abuse. The commercial environment was a particular concern, in relation to customer expectations, medicine advertising and easy access to different community pharmacies. A key tension emerged between providing medicine supplies that permitted consumer freedom, with the needs of healthcare professionals to understand more about those consumers qua patients. Policy implications include the need for improved knowledge for community pharmacy staff about signposting to relevant services, increased awareness of who might be affected, and a review of how pharmacists can have more information about patients to inform OTC medicine sales.

MeSH terms

  • Communication
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Nonprescription Drugs*
  • Pharmacies*
  • Pharmacists*
  • Pharmacy Technicians
  • Professional Role*
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Substance-Related Disorders / diagnosis
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology


  • Nonprescription Drugs