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Prescribe OTC medicines to ease cost of living crisis, says watchdog

by Anna Colivicchi
5 June 2023

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Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines should be offered on prescription to patients struggling with the cost of living, a patient watchdog has proposed.

And it recommended that primary care teams make people who need medication more aware of pre-payment options.

Healthwatch England said in a report published last week that the cost of living crisis can be a barrier to healthcare for the most vulnerable.

It said that patients who are disabled, on means-tested benefits or aged 18-24, were more likely to avoid health services because they feared extra costs.

The report found that one in five patients on means-tested benefits has avoided booking an NHS appointment due to the associated costs, including the internet or phone call, compared to 6% of the general public.

And people on disability benefits are over twice as likely to have avoided their usual over-the-counter medication than the general public – 15% compared to 7%.  

The Healthwatch report called on NHS England and the Government to put ‘immediate actions’ in place so that people can access the care they need.  This includes encouraging GPs to offer OTC medications on prescription based on socioeconomic grounds.

But the recommendation goes against NHS England guidance to curb prescriptions for OTC medicines. In 2018, guidance was issued that aimed to put a halt to the routine prescribing of some medicines in a bid to save £100m to be reinvested in frontline services.

The report also suggested that NHS England should reopen its review of the Healthcare Travel Cost Scheme and consider reimbursement to patients for travel costs to see GPs, dentists and pharmacists.

NHS England should also work with Ofcom and telecommunications companies to ensure that GP and hospital phone numbers are part of the freephone service, so that cost is never a barrier to phoning a health service, Healthwatch said.

The report contains the findings of a poll of 2,000 adults in England, conducted four times between October last year and March.

It said it was a worry that ‘vital health and care services are out of reach for many people’. 

It added: ‘Making decisions between eating, medications and keeping medical devices running, can further impact their physical and mental health, putting them in danger.’  

RCGP chair Professor Kamila Hawthorne told our sister publication Pulse that the findings were ‘concerning’ and said more needed to be done to help vulnerable patients.

‘There are existing measures in place – such as the Prescriptions Prepayment Certificate – to relieve some of the financial burden on a patient’s treatment.

‘However, further solutions are clearly needed to ensure all our patients can access the care they need. Patient care is our number one priority and ensuring that a person has access to the treatment they need is our fundamental goal.’

A version of this story was published on our sister title Pulse.