Doctors violate prescription law

Health professionals face fines after government inspectors' spot checks uncover evidence on pharmacists' notepads.

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ABU DHABI // Doctors have been illegally prescribing themselves controlled drugs, an official investigation has found. The Health Authority - Abu Dhabi (HAAD) conducted spot checks on pharmacies, and found a number of violations after inspecting prescription pads in pharmacies.

The authority would not say which drugs had been illegally prescribed, but the Ministry of Health list of controlled substances includes Valium, tramadol and diazepam. In February, HAAD told health facilities and pharmacies that its inspectors had identified doctors "prescribing controlled drugs for themselves and subsequently being dispensed by pharmacists". The inspectors had also been checking for pharmacies that were selling counterfeit medicines, stocking out-of-date medicines, or selling prescription-only drugs over the counter.

The memo urged pharmacists to verify patients' names when dispensing controlled drugs. Dr Mohammed Abuelkhair, the head of drugs and medical product regulation section at HAAD, said doctors had to follow the same procedures as other patients to obtain prescription-only drugs. "The procedure is the same for all patients," he said. "Health professionals must consult a doctor or specialist in order to obtain their prescriptions."

Dr Abuelkhair said the exact drugs the doctors had prescribed themselves were irrelevant, but that there was an "expansive list of controlled drugs with various therapeutic categories". Dr Abuelkhair said anyone found breaching either of the relevant laws would be fined. It is also understood that their cases could be passed on to the police. Self-prescribing is illegal in many parts of the world. The General Medical Council in the UK said doctors should not treat themselves and should be registered with another, independent GP.

Over the past year health authorities across the Emirates have introduced tougher rules for pharmacies and the distribution of drugs. In the Ministry of Health's draft National Pharmacy Programme for 2008-2010, it was estimated that about 70 per cent of pharmacists sell antibiotics over the counter, which is also illegal. It also said outdated standards of pharmacy practice had led to "poor standards of patient care and will inhibit the growth of the profession's value to the country".

In April the ministry, which has jurisdiction over the northern Emirates, wrote to more than 1,100 pharmacies demanding that they perform monthly inspections to check for possible breaches of the pharmacy law, or risk having their licences revoked. It also warned that it was giving its inspectors more power to close pharmacies acting illegally. One of the other problem areas in the sector is counterfeit medicine. Last year The National revealed that a proposed pharmacy law included much tougher penalties particularly for those who make or sell counterfeit drugs.

HAAD described the practice as "a vile and serious criminal offence that puts human lives at risk and undermines the credibility of the health system". Next week, delegates at the Dubai International Pharmaceuticals and Technologies Conference will discuss the new law and better ways to regulate the sector. Dr Ali al Sayed, the director of the pharmaceutical services department at Dubai Health Authority, said last week many pharmacists needed educating about their role.

Dr al Sayed said: "We want to educate the pharmacists about how they can better educate the public. The public may see pharmacists as doctors but they are not, they are guides."