Counseling patients on choosing and using OTCs

One to one

Selecting OTC medicines can be challenging for patients because of the wide range of competing products available. Pharmacists can help patients navigate the many options in OTC products and choose the right OTC drug for their particular needs; identify possible interactions between OTC products or between an OTC product and a prescription drug, food, or supplement; and advise patients when a condition is best treated with prescription medications and when to see a health care provider.

In recent surveys of consumers and health care providers, however, a majority of consumers said they don’t consult with their pharmacist before purchasing OTCs, though they would heed their pharmacist’s advice on buying a particular OTC medicine. How can pharmacists establish a dialogue with patients to help them choose and use OTCs effectively and safely?

Tips to encourage interaction

Displaying posters, providing brochures at the pharmacy counter, and asking patients who are shopping for OTC products if they have any questions are easy-to-implement ways to encourage pharmacist–patient interaction about OTC meds, Shelley Ducker, Director of Communications & Outreach for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), told Pharmacy Today.

Through its Educational Foundation, CHPA offers resources for pharmacists and other health care providers and encourages patients to talk to their pharmacists if they have questions about OTCs, reminding them that pharmacists are a great resource.

Educational programs include Know Your Dose, on safe acetaminophen use, which offers brochures, posters, and shelf-readers that pharmacists can use to encourage patients to ask their advice. Shelf-readers are particularly effective, Ducker added, because they educate patients as they are making a medicine purchase decision and direct patients to approach the pharmacist with questions about OTCs.

Some stores, such as the Walgreens flagship stores (see May’s Today), put pharmacists out front and center at a desk separate from the actual pharmacy. The pharmacist is there just to engage with patients and answer questions. Walgreens also offers a “speakers’ room” where pharmacists or guest speakers can hold monthly educational health talks.

Vendors such as MediaForce provide educational messages to in-store radio networks in select pharmacies and grocery stores. Pharmacists can use these messages or in-house announcements to encourage patients to stop by the pharmacy for information.

Pharmacists may want to consider writing a health tips column or guest blog for their local newspaper, create their own blog, or produce and distribute a newsletter in their communities. Drug take-back events held throughout the year and National Drug Take-Back Days are other opportunities to have conversations about safe OTC medicine use, storage, and disposal.

Other resources

Through the CHPA Educational Foundation’s website,, pharmacists can order free brochures and posters for the Up and Away and Out of Sight safe medicine storage campaign, as well as brochures for Treat With Care, an initiative on the safe use of pediatric cough and cold medicines. Free brochures about preventing teen abuse of OTC cough medicines are available from the Stop Medicine Abuse campaign.

The National Council on Patient Information and Education’s (NCPIE) Be MedWise campaign offers numerous resources on OTC meds, including a “Know What’s in Your Medicines” section. A brochure available online, “Be MedWise: Use Over-the-Counter Medicines Wisely,” includes tips on how to take OTC medicines correctly by learning how to read product labels and to recognize the active ingredients in OTCs.

More information on the safe use of acetaminophen is available from NCPIE’s website (for seniors) and from FDA. FDA also has a section of its website devoted to consumer information on the safe use of OTC products.