With imminent changes to the availability of non-prescription drugs, and with pressure from the European Union to open up the profession, the future of rural chemists looks uncertain.
Whilst residents from the UK and USA will be familiar with being able to buy self-service non-prescription medications from corner shops and supermarkets,
The main objective of this change has little to do with consumer protection, but more an attempt by to persuade patients to ‘auto-medicate’, and thereby reduce the burden on an overstretched health service budget. As part of this exercise, last year the Government decided that some prescription 'branded' drugs they considered ineffective or expensive would simply not be reimbursed by the health service. Instead, patients would be expected to use generic alternatives, or pay for the drug themselves. This is now being followed up by making a wider range of up to 3,000 medicines available on self-service through chemists. Whilst these medicines would then be available without prescription, most would also continue to be available on prescription. There is already evidence that a relaxation of Government controls is resulting in a big increase in the prices. The price of some of the branded medicines no longer eligible for reimbursement, but still often requested by patients, has risen by over 100%. Chemists deny that they are profiting from these increases, which they say is the result of new wholesale prices being imposed upon them by the drug manufacturers, a view that seems to be borne out by the evidence. The prospect of a loosening of the regulations on the sale of non-prescription medicines has already begun to excite the appetite of the big supermarket chains, who are arguing that the monopoly of chemists should be broken. They claim that by doing so they should be able to reduce prices by an average of 25%.
The French Attali Commission on Growth has also stated that the profession is one that must be opened up. France has around 23,000 independent chemists, none of whom are permitted under present regulations to operate more than one outlet. Thus far, the Minister of Health has stated there will be no change in the structure of the profession, but many feel that it is only a matter of time before supermarkets get a slice of this lucrative business. Whither, then, the rural chemist?