Health chiefs say study on prescription-only drugs was ‘flawed’

Health Authority – Abu Dhabi is to send secret shoppers or “phantom patients” to buy drugs that should not be sold over the counter.

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ABU DHABI // Health chiefs are to introduce a raft of measures to remind pharmacists of the penalties for illegally selling prescription-only drugs.

The Health Authority Abu Dhabi (Haad) is to send secret shoppers or “phantom patients” to buy drugs that should not be sold over the counter. It will also send a circular listing prescription-only medicines to the about 600 pharmacies in the emirate within two weeks.

The measures were expected to come into force in months. Meanwhile, the authority’s inspection teams will continue daily checks.

The authority rejected the findings of a study that found dozens of pharmacies were illegally selling prescription drugs over the counter.

Sahar Fahmy, section head of drugs and medical products regulation at the authority, said the survey, published in The National, did not show how it was working to make pharmacists aware of the law.

“People from time to time – they need a reminder,” said Ms Fahmy.

This builds on the work of Haad in recent years to educate pharmacies, said Ms Fahmy, including a pharmacy programme which addresses prescription-only medicines.

The study, published in the British Journal of Applied Science and Technology, by David Yeboah, of Abu Dhabi University, stated that 73 pharmacies surveyed all admitted to selling medicines without the prescriptions. The majority said the reason for doing this was that “everybody is doing it” and “the next pharmacy will sell if I don’t”.

But Ms Fahmy said the study was not fair, because it did not refer to Haad’s efforts in publishing pharmacy law on its website. “We also released a circular in 2008 enforcing prescription-only medicine.”

An awareness campaign also educated Abu Dhabi and Al Ain residents, said Ms Fahmy.

The sample seemed to represent community pharmacies and not in-hospital pharmacies, which operate by the letter of the law, she said.

Findings by Haad suggest those pharmacies dispensing prescription-only medication tended to be in remote areas without easy access to a doctor.

Bypassing a doctor also made no sense as it meant people had to spend their own money for medication rather than claiming it under insurance, she said. “Another variable that we have to consider is these pharmacists are coming from different countries where this practice is common.”

However all pharmacists are quizzed on UAE’s pharmacy law to get their local licence, she said.

Ms Fahmy conceded there was some selling of prescription-only medicine in Abu Dhabi but said this could often be a result of patients putting pressure on pharmacists.

Pharmacists who flout the law face a written warning for a first offence. Offenders will have their licence suspended for up to three months and the pharmacy could be closed for a month if caught a second time.

Third-time offenders face having their licence revoked and a six-month closure.