Categories of Medicines

Categories of Medicines

Why can you obtain some medicines from a pharmacist, or even buy them from a supermarket, while others can only be obtained with a prescription from your doctor or other healthcare professional?
The difference depends on the level of supervision that experts in medicines consider is needed before you use a particular medicine.
Under laws governing the supply of medicines, there are three categories determining how you obtain medicine:

Prescription-only medicines

(POMs) are available only on a prescription issued by a doctor or other suitably qualified healthcare professional, such as a nurse or pharmacist. You need to see the healthcare professional before they give you a prescription. You’ll then have to take the prescription to a pharmacy or, in rural areas, a dispensing GP surgery for your prescription to be dispensed. Examples of POMs are inhalers to treat asthma or medicines to lower high blood pressure.

Pharmacy (P) medicines

are available from a pharmacy without a prescription, but under the supervision of a pharmacist. You need to ask the pharmacy staff for this type of medicine as it will be kept “behind the counter” and will not be available for you to pick up from the pharmacy shelves. The pharmacist or another member of staff will check that the medicine is appropriate for you and your health problem, and will ask questions to ensure that there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use the medicine. An example of a medicine that you can buy from a pharmacy without a prescription is chloramphenicol eye drops to treat an eye infection.

General sales list (GSL) medicines

can be bought from pharmacies, supermarkets and other retail outlets without the supervision of a pharmacist. These include medicines to treat minor, self-limiting complaints that people may feel aren’t serious enough to see their doctor or pharmacist about, such as the common cold, headaches, other aches and pains, minor cuts and stomach-related upsets.

Can medicines change their status?

New medicines tend to be licensed in the POM category so that healthcare professionals can supervise their use during the first few years they’re available. If a medicine proves safe in large numbers of patients over several years, the regulatory agency may consider changing it from POM to P.
EU regulations encourage switching medicines from POM to P as long as there’s no danger to health if the medicine is used without a prescriber’s supervision and the medicine is unlikely to be used incorrectly.
If a P medicine has shown no problems after several years, it may be considered for a switch to GSL status, so that it can be sold directly from retail outlets.
The UK is currently leading the world in making medicines available over the counter (OTC). A wide range of medicines have switched from both POM to P and P to GSL over the past 20 years, including ibuprofen for pain relief, nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) for stopping smoking, emergency hormone contraception, and clotrimazole and fluconazole for vaginal thrush.
More recently, simvastatin, a medicine that reduces cholesterol as a means of reducing the risk of heart attack, and chloramphenicol eye drops for eye infections have also switched from POM to P.
The government has said that it’s committed to increasing the availability of OTC medicines for common complaints, including treatments for long-term conditions, such as high blood pressure, where it’s safe to do so.
Are medicines I can buy from a pharmacy just as effective and safe?

If a medicine switches from POM to P, or from P to GSL, the active drug remains exactly the same. This means that it’s just as effective as when it had to be prescribed by a qualified prescriber. It also means that there’s the same risk of side effects if you take too high a dose or if you don’t follow the instructions on the label, so it’s important to follow the instructions carefully. Your pharmacist will be able to advise you about any side effects

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