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Which? survey finds pharmacies' advice may not always be good for your health – Health Policy Today, 25 September 2008

A new report from Which? is based on an ‘undercover investigation’ into advice dispensed from pharmacies .  Which? researchers posing as patients asked questions about emergency contraception, migraines and traveler’s diarrhoea.

They received ‘unsatisfactory advice in 48% of independent pharmacies, 28% of national and regional changes and in 26% of the biggest supermarkets.  The results do not bode well for plans to pass more clinical work to pharmacies from GPs.


The problem is not advice from pharmacists, but the poorly trained staff working in pharmacies.  For example, sales of the migraine drug Imigran Recover, which used to be only available by prescription can now be issued by pharmacists and sold after the customer has answered a number of questions.  ‘However, in 40% of cases, sales assistants did not alert the pharmacist, and one in five sold it without asking a single question’.

In another example of poor practice, a researcher was able to buy 160 Solpadeine Plus from an Internet vendor, even though it is illegal to sell more than 100 without a doctor’s prescription.

Neil Fowler, the editor of Which? magazine, said, “with plans to expand the remit of pharmacists further, even allowing them to leave sales assistants in change for periods of time, it’s vital that training improves and that meaningful action is taken against those that fail to deliver”.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society did not sound very convincing when they pointed to the small sample size, ‘less than 1% of all pharmacies in the UK’. Of course, in the other 99% there would be no such problems.


The Which? website contains a breakdown of the results across the 101 pharmacies  they visited, broken down by company.  

The results are particularly bad news for independent pharmacies, where staff are less likely to follow standard practice and better for supermarkets.


On the bright side, things have improved since Which? last undertook the survey, such as the number of pharmacies offering a private area to discuss sensitive issues.

The results are important because as Which? says, ‘around half of [the public] have told us that you already use your pharmacy for advice on common illnesses and your medicines, so it’s important that you can trust what you’re told’.  

These results pose questions about the policy to bring pharmacies in as a closer part of the healthcare team.