OTC medicines key self-care component

Increased use can cut health, drug costs

In all of the recent discussion about the benefits of self-care, one important component of that process has often been overlooked: the use of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to prevent and/or treat common ailments.

To help increase awareness of this self-care option, the Omaha, NE-based Wellness Councils of America (WELCOA), with an educational grant from the Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association (NDMA), Washington, DC, has produced the report Well Informed: A Report to Management on Self-Care With Nonprescription Medicines. Among the key points made by the report:

·The cost to businesses of illnesses that are self-treatable is huge. For example, the National Headache Foundation estimates that industry loses $50 billion a year due to absenteeism and medical expenses related to headaches.

· Treatment for patients is accessible and convenient.

· Managed care organizations can reduce unnecessary doctor visits.

· Physicians will be able to focus on patients with more serious medical problems.

· Employees get positive health care resolutions, often at costs that compare favorably to the out-of-pocket expenses of doctor visits and prescription medications.

· Employers win due to less absenteeism, greater productivity and lower health care costs.

"Lost workdays and lost productivity of those who are ill on the job can be recaptured if more Americans would learn about the value of over-the-counter medicines in treating everything from common colds to indigestion and sleeplessness," notes David Hunnicutt, PhD, president of WELCOA. (For more information on those ailments treatable by OTCs, see the chart below.)

"As pointed out in the report, OTCs can save money and increase productivity - something all companies are looking to do," says Joseph K. Doss, vice president and director of public affairs for the NDMA. "If employees have a headache or some other ailment that can be treated with OTCs that are cost-effective, safe, and effective, they can come to work more often. I have allergies, and if not for some of the medications I take I wouldn't be able make it through the day."

OTCs are also one of the most cost-effective means of health care in the United States, Doss asserts. "The average cost is approximately $5, while the average prescription drug is $22, and then you need to add in the visit to the doctor."

A study by Fairfield, NJ-based Kline & Co., commissioned by the NDMA in 1997, found that in 1996 alone consumers saved $20.6 billion by using OTCs, says Doss. "This took into consideration lost time from work, the cost of the prescription, and doctor visit costs," he says. (For savings per episode for specific ailments, see the chart below.)

In addition, says Doss, the cost of OTCs are not rising as rapidly as other health care costs. "The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics came out with a study in March 1997 that found the cost of OTCs only increased 10% in the last five years," he notes. "Contrast that with hospital care (32%) and physician services (24%)."

Safety is not a 'given'

But before you grab your wallet and head for the drugstore, use some caution. Just because a drug does not require a prescription doesn't mean it's safe for everybody, or that you can take it whenever you wish, cautions Bill Hettler, MD, the Wisconsin physician who was one of the founders of the National Wellness Institute in Stevens Point, WI.

"I encourage people to become knowledgeable about anything they use, whether prescription, over-the-counter, or herbal," he says. "People need to be as well-informed as they can be about the consequences of mixing things."

One of biggest problems in this area, says Hettler, is that people don't often share with their physicians information about other remedies they take on a regular basis. "If a doctor asks if they are on another medication and they take herbals, they may deny they are on anything else because they fear the doctor will not embrace that," he says. "But they may be taking herbals or OTCs that may have serious interactions with prescription drugs. Fortunately, the human body has a great capacity for stupidity, but there are untoward affects of legitimate prescription medications [and herbals or OTCs] when you mix and match. Then, when you throw in that social milieu of alcohol, it can get real messy."

Doss agrees, noting that the WELCOA report includes tips for responsible self-medication. "We want to make sure employees are educated about the use of OTC medications, and are told how to take them safely and effectively," he says.

A number of software products are available today to help employees become better informed, says Hettler. While not wishing to endorse a specific products, he notes there are "several CD-ROM-based references that are priced reasonably for consumers that would expand their knowledge base with minimal effort." Most of the major software stores carry them, he says. There is also a new revised edition of The People's Pharmacy, by pharmacist Joe Graedon available, which he recommends. For a review of this and other books on the subject, Hettler suggests readers visit the "Amazon. com" site on the World Wide Web.