The tension between the “business of pharmacy” and the professional responsibilities of pharmacists, as health care professionals, has always been present in retail (“community”) pharmacy practice. For much of the past several decades, pharmacies have generally been owned by pharmacists, elevating pharmacy ethics and professional responsibilities to the level of the owner. But the era of the independent pharmacist-owner-operated pharmacy is disappearing, and the era of the massive pharmacy chain is upon us. In the United States, CVS and Walgreens command 50% of the retail pharmacy business in major cities. In Canada, Shoppers Drug Mart has been purchased by the grocery giant Loblaw, and the Rexall chain has been purchased by American giant McKesson. And in the United Kingdom, retail pharmacy chain Boots has about 25% of pharmacy market share.
With this retail consolidation, are we seeing a decline in the autonomy of the front-line pharmacist? A scathing series of articles in The Guardian is raising questions about whether pharmacy giant Boots is putting a drive for profits ahead of safe and appropriate pharmacy care. And pharmacists are speaking up. Continue reading
Legal to sell, yes. But ethical to sell?
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is no longer fringe, and anything but the mom-and-pop image that manufacturers carefully craft. CAM is big business, and most Americans today take some sort of supplement. The impetus for my blogging (and tilting at CAM windmills) emerged from years spent working in a pharmacy with a heavy reliance on CAM sales. If it was unorthodox, this store probably sold it. Conventional drug products (the ones I was familiar with) were hidden off in a corner, and the store was otherwise crowded with herbal remedies, homeopathy, and different forms of detox kits and candida cleanses. All of this was unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard about in pharmacy school – so I started researching.
I looked at CAM from a scientific evidence perspective, the one I was taught in pharmacy school, using the same approach I’d take when assessing a new drug. Did the evidence support the claims made about these products, or not? The answers, as you might expect, were often the same. There was little or no credible evidence to demonstrate CAM had any meaningful benefits. I started blogging my own reviews as a way of documenting my own research, while offering some information to anyone on the Interwebs who might be searching for evidence.
Over time my blogging focus expanded, as I asked myself the inevitable questions: How could implausible products with no scientific backing even be approved for sale at all? I discovered the regulatory double-standard allowed for anything considered a dietary supplement (or in Canada, a “natural health product“) and the history and politics that have made CAM the “Wild West” of health care, with a marketplace that prioritizes a manufacturer’s right to sell over a consumer’s right to purchase a product that is safe and effective. Given the retail marketplace that’s been established by regulators like the FDA and Health Canada, I’ve turned my focus on to health professionals, who have an ethical responsibility to put patient interests above that of commercial interests. From a professional practice and medical ethics perspective, I have argued that health professionals that sell or promote CAM are on ethically shaky ground, and compromise the credibility of the profession.
Despite the lack of evidence that CAM (in general) offers any health benefits at all, it’s been remarkable to watch its popularity grow, to the point where even large pharmacy chains now sell aisles of products that are implausible and often highly questionable. Generally meeting these changes with a collective shrug, the pharmacy profession has even tried to lower its own ethical standards. While I do get the occasional encouragement from some of my peers, most just say “it’s business” or “the customer wants it, and these are legal products.” My argument today is CAM fails even this lower ethical bar. Continue reading
Is genomic testing as useful as pharmacies claim it can be?
Despite science’s ability to develop sophisticated and targeted new drugs, predicting the effect of a drug in an individual is still maddeningly difficult. Not every drug works for everyone that takes it. Similarly, the very same drug can be well tolerated in some, but can cause intolerable side effects in others. So-called “targeted therapies” were supposed to improve our accuracy, by focusing on specific targets on cells. That’s been good – but not sufficient to make drug treatments more consistently effective. Pharmacogenomics is the relationship between your DNA and how your body responds to drugs: how they’re absorbed, how they work, and how they’re eliminated from the body. It has been heralded for some time as the white knight of drug therapy. The genome revolution was supposed to remove (or dramatically reduce) the uncertainty in medicine, telling us which drugs will work more effectively, and which we might want to avoid. And to some extent, the genome-based treatment era is already here. There are over 100 drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now that include genomic information in their prescribing information. For a small number of drugs, genomic testing is warranted. Increasingly, genomic testing is more accessible, moving from the research bench directly into retail pharmacies for sale when you pick up your prescription. Given pharmacies have a less-than-stellar record of selling laboratory testing that isn’t validated or even useful, I was immediately skeptical when I saw a new story on pharmacy-based genomic testing. Titled “Your pharmacist’s secret weapon: How your DNA can help perfect your medication,” it appeared a recent Globe and Mail column: Continue reading
Very excited to announce that a paper I collaborated on with Dr. Chris MacDonald has now been published in the peer-reviewed journal Bioethics, as part of a series on complementary and alternative medicine. It’s also open access (for now):
Is it ethical to market complementary and alternative medicines? Complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) are medical products and services outside the mainstream of medical practice. But they are not just medicines (or supposed medicines) offered and provided for the prevention and treatment of illness. They are also products and services – things offered for sale in the marketplace. Most discussion of the ethics of CAM has focused on bioethical issues – issues having to do with therapeutic value, and the relationship between patients and those purveyors of CAM. This article aims instead to consider CAM from the perspective of commercial ethics. That is, we consider the ethics not of prescribing or administering CAM (activities most closely associated with health professionals) but the ethics of selling CAM.
The full paper is here.
Macdonald, C. and Gavura, S. (2016), Alternative Medicine and the Ethics Of Commerce. Bioethics, 30: 77–84. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12226
With 2016 upon us, it’s finally time get serious about your health. You’re resolving to eat better and exercise more. But first, you need to reset your body – and purge yourself of all of your lifestyle and dietary overindulgences. But how? The options seem limitless, and everyone has advice: There’s Dr. Oz, Gwyneth, and even your favourite Kardashian has advice: They’re all telling you how it’s essential to “detox”, “cleanse” and “flush” away all of your toxins. Your local pharmacy has an ever-growing section of products promising a newer, more pure you: supplements, homeopathy, ear candles, and an entire aisle of “detox kits” all promise to suck toxins out of your body. Don’t forget your local naturopath who sells IV vitamin drips as the detoxification solution to your problems. The approaches may differ but all the advocates are completely convinced of one fact: Detoxing will deliver a renewed body and better health. Not only will you look better, you’ll feel better. It is a new year. Wouldn’t a purification from last year’s habits (dietary and otherwise) of last year be the best way to start? Well before you pull out your credit card, there is one fact that “detox” advocates are reluctant to tell you. Continue reading
Can you spot the sugar pills among the medicine?
Retail pharmacies have a sugar pill problem. Homeopathic “remedies” look like conventional medicine when they’re stocked on pharmacy shelves, like the photo above. But unlike conventional medicine, homeopathic products don’t contain any “medicine” at all. They are effectively and sometimes literally sugar pills – placebos. Not surprisingly, there is convincing evidence to show that homeopathy is useless as a medical treatment, and fundamentally incompatible with a scientific understanding of medicine, biochemistry and even physics. Questions have been raised worldwide about the ethics of pharmacists and pharmacies selling homeopathy to consumers who may not realize what they’re buying. This practice, which appears to be growing, is attracting sharp criticism from other health professions. So why do pharmacies sell them? And will the pharmacy profession change? Continue reading
I’ll be joining Professor Chris MacDonald on January 28 for a discussion about the ethics of selling complementary and alternative medicine:
Is it ethical to market complementary and alternative medicines? Complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) are medical products and services outside the mainstream of medical practice. But they are not just medicines (or supposed medicines) offered and provided for the prevention and treatment of illness. They are also products and services – things offered for sale in the marketplace. Most discussion of the ethics of CAM has focused on bioethical issues – issues having to do with therapeutic value, and the relationship between patients and those purveyors of CAM. This presentation — by a philosopher and a pharmacist — aims instead to consider CAM from the perspective of commercial ethics. That is, we consider the ethics not of prescribing or administering CAM (activities most closely associated with health professionals) but the ethics of selling CAM.
Admission is free. Space is limited. Register here.
WHAT: Complementary & Alternative Medicine: A Business Ethics Perspective
DATE: January 28, 2015
TIME: 3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.
WHERE: Ted Rogers Leadership Centre, Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University, 55 Dundas Street West, Toronto.
It’s time for community pharmacy to stop selling quackery, argues pharmacist Anthony Cox:
Pharmacists have long been providing advice to prescribers based on evidence. Before EBM became widely used in the 1990s, pharmacists ran medicine information centres and answered complex drug queries using the best available evidence. Pharmacists were involved in the development of EBM and its propagation via drug and therapeutics committees, and more recently working with the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
By its very nature, pharmacy is an evidence-based profession in both primary care and hospital care and the industry is undergoing a period of change. Future models of community pharmacy practice that focus on management of long-term conditions will place an even greater reliance on EBM.
Well, that is the case with prescribed medicines. When it comes to OTC products, pharmacists’ approach to evidence seems to be forgotten, with a “what the public wants, the public gets” attitude taking precedence.
Photo from flickr user jeepersmedia used under a CC licence.
Imagine a retail pharmacy where some of the medicines on the shelves have been replaced with similar-looking packages that contain no active ingredients at all. There is no easy way to distinguish between the real and the fake.
Another section of the store offers a number of remedies with fantastic claims, such as “boosting” the immune system, “detoxifying” the body, or “cleansing” you of microscopic Candida. They look sciencey, unless you realize that they treat imaginary medical conditions.
A corner of the store offers unpurified drugs supplied as tinctures and teas. The active ingredients aren’t known, and the batch-to-batch consistency of the product is unclear. The store will suggest products for you based on your symptoms.
Walk past the enormous wall of vitamins and other supplements and you’ll find a nutritionist who will tell you what products you should be taking. You’ll also find a weight loss section. From a science-based perspective, this shouldn’t even exist, given no product has been shown to offer any meaningful benefit. But there are dozens of products for sale.
At the back of the store you’ll finally find the pharmacist. A sign on the counter offers blood- and saliva-based tests for food “intolerance” and adrenal “fatigue”, claiming to test for medical conditions that actually don’t exist or lack an evidence base. The pharmacy also offers a large compounding practice, advertising what it calls “personalized” approaches to hormone replacement with “bioidentical” hormones.
Welcome to the “integrative” pharmacy.
You may not see all of this in your local pharmacy, but they’re coming: claims of a new “integrative” way to provide health care that is changing the face of retail pharmacy. Unfortunately, it’s harkening back to the era of patent medicines and snake oil. It’s not good for the pharmacists and the profession of pharmacy, and it’s even worse for the patients we serve. Continue reading
I can’t think of anything more appalling than selling water to someone and telling them it will treat their asthma. This pic via Ryan Melyon on Twitter, was taken at a Target pharmacy in Chicago:
I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating: Homeopathy is an elaborate placebo system where the “remedies” are inert. It’s reckless endangerment of life to sell a product for treating the acute symptoms of asthma when there is no medication in the bottle, even if there is a caution on the front of the box. And it should be obvious, but placebo has no meaningful effects in the treatment of asthma. The sale of homeopathy in pharmacies is not only misleading to consumers, it is fundamentally unethical behavior from a health professional. Target and its pharmacists have a ethical and moral responsibility to pull this product off the shelf immediately.
January 16: Here’s an update on Target’s fake asthma “remedy”. And a petition has been started asking Target to stop selling this product.