With drug-resistant superbugs posing an increasing risk to health worldwide, the danger of antibiotics being handed out like sweets is obvious. But, as we reported yesterday, antibiotics are not just being dispensed liberally in the UAE but are often handed out without any kind of doctor's prescription at all.
Reporters for The National posed as patients to visit a dozen pharmacies in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Three of the seven pharmacies in Dubai offered a course of antibiotics without prescription to deal with claimed symptoms of three days of sickness and diarrhoea. In Abu Dhabi, three of the five pharmacies visited also offered a range of antibiotics without prescription.
Quite apart from the long-term risk of superbugs becoming resistant to antibiotics, these findings also suggest that pharmacies are usurping the role rightly played by doctors in ensuring patients get the appropriate care.
The ability of patients to go straight to a pharmacy removes doctors’ important safeguard role to identify the underlying problem rather than simply treating the symptoms. Sometimes patients will get well without the need to use antibiotics, while at other times there is a far bigger problem at play which, if identified early through proper medical examination, is far more likely to be treated successfully.
One factor that may be playing a part in this is the paucity of community health centres in some areas, as we also reported yesterday. Dubai Health Authority reports there is a health centres and peripheral clinic for every 30,000 people in the emirate. However these are often concentrated in long-established areas and residents of places such as Dubai's Remraam community face a 30-minute drive to reach a medical centre.
For some, there will be a temptation to go straight to a pharmacy. For those on lower incomes whose medical cover requires them to make a co-payment, there is also a temptation to bypass the medical centre and go straight to the pharmacy.
The medical system is sophisticated enough to cope with this, but it requires pharmacies to act as a responsible gatekeeper, rejecting those who are tempted to bypass the process of getting a prescription. This is not just important to our health, but to the health of millions around the world.