Shoppers react to their exeprience with pharmacy staff
Staff at pharmacies are frequently giving inappropriate and occasionally dangerous advice to patients, a survey has suggested.
Staff at Which? magazine visited 101 pharmacies in the UK, and claimed they received "unsatisfactory" advice on a third of occasions.
In some instances, powerful migraine drugs were sold without any supervision by the pharmacist.
One pharmacy body said its own "mystery shoppers" had seen improvements.
We're concerned that in some cases they're getting advice which is unsuitable and potentially unsafe
Neil Fowler Which?
The government and pharmacy organisations are keen for some medicines previously available only with a GP prescription to be dispensed "over-the-counter".
However, this often relies on pharmacy teams asking the right questions before selling the medicine, and the Which? survey suggests this is not always happening.
They found that independent pharmacies were most likely to give the wrong advice, or not carry out the right checks.
The Which? staff confronted the pharmacies with one of three scenarios - a request to buy "Imigran Recovery", a migraine medication; a patient complaining of two weeks' of diarrhoea after returning from abroad, and a request for the "morning-after pill" designed to test whether a customer's privacy could be respected.
Imigran Recovery should only be dispensed following a series of questions set by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, but Which? ranked 13 out of 35 visits as "unsatisfactory".
In 40% of the 13, the pharmacy assistant did not even alert the pharmacist before handing over the drug.
The patient with travellers' diarrhoea should have been asked about symptoms and advised to see a GP if they had not already done so, in case the diarrhoea was due to a serious infection.
However, 14 out of 32 visits were "unsatisfactory", with one assistant suggesting the symptoms were caused by irritable bowel syndrome instead.
The request for emergency contraception was dealt with poorly in seven out of 34 visits - in two pharmacies, the woman was questioned about her sex life within earshot of other customers.
Neil Fowler, the editor of Which?, said: "People are increasingly turning to pharmacies for the sort of advice they might have gone to their GP for in the past - but we're concerned that in some cases they're getting advice which is unsuitable and potentially unsafe."
The National Pharmacy Association, which represents community pharmacies, said that while the survey was reassuring about the skills of pharmacists themselves, it showed there was "room for further improvement" in other pharmacy staff.
A spokesman said: "In this study the expertise of the pharmacist is shining through. Work needs to be done to increase the support given to the whole of the pharmacy team."
She said the association had been "encouraged" by the results of its own "mystery shopping" exercise.
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society agreed that there were issues that needed to be addressed, but said that the survey covered fewer than 1% of all pharmacies in the UK.
A Department of Health spokesman said its research had shown the public was satisfied with pharmacy services.
But he said that April's pharmacy White Paper set out plans for measures to deal with "unwarranted variations" in standards and quality of service delivery.
"We are currently consulting on proposals to enable primary care trusts to take effective action where contractors are not achieving acceptable performance standards."
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