Self-medication is the treatment of common health problems with medicines especially designed and labeled for use without medical supervision and approved as safe and effective for such use.
Medicines for self-medication are often called ‘nonprescription’ or ‘over the counter’ (OTC) and are available without a doctor’s prescription through pharmacies. In some countries OTC products are also available in supermarkets and other outlets. Medicines that require a doctor’s prescription are called prescription products (Rx products).
The Basis for Self-Medication
Everyday, everywhere, consumers reach for self-care products to help them through their common health problems. They do so because it may be easier for them, it may be more cost or time efficient, they may not feel their situation merits making an appointment with a healthcare professional, or they may have few or no other options. The challenge and opportunity for governments, healthcare professionals, and providers of self-medication products, then, is to have a responsible framework in place for self-medication.
There is evidence that consumers can and do practice self-medication responsibly. There is also support showing consumers recognize and respect nonprescription medicines. As a whole, they use them appropriately, carefully, and safely; and they read nonprescription drug labeling.
Studies show people are typically cautious and careful when they do turn to nonprescription medicines. They read labels, and they generally take products for less than the maximum period of time indicated on the label.
We also know consumers are taking a more active role in their healthcare, including through self-medication. For example, 59 percent of Americans polled say they are more likely to treat their own health condition now than they were a year ago. 73 percent would rather treat themselves at home than see a doctor, and six in 10 say they would like to do more of this in the future.
In parallel to consumer interest is the health information explosion, made possible by technological advances that improve access to information that is more relevant and more useful to the end user. Consumers now have more tools to take an active role in their health care, and they are using them. One research firm estimated 65 percent of people who visited the Internet in a 12-month period went to health-related sites.
Finally, aging populations, increased interest and emphasis on wellness and disease prevention, and consumer empowerment themes are all trends prevalent in many societies. Self-medication fits into these trends as well.
Society and public health
Society benefits from a citizenry that is better informed about healthcare and therefore more able to exercise self-reliance. Having the tools available to help consumers practice such self-reliance also allows scarce health resources to be directed toward illnesses or conditions that require treatment in the professional healthcare system. Having appropriate nonprescription medicines available can also reduce illegal use of prescription products without a prescription – something which occurs too frequently in some countries, and is sometimes referred to as “self-prescription.” In Mexico, for example, an increase in the availability of nonprescription medicines helped to reduce the estimated rate of “self-prescription” by 20 percent from 1989 to 1999.
In some cases, nonprescription medicines provide treatment in areas which are otherwise under-served. Certain preventive measures, or those more tied to behavior and the need for non-health oriented support are examples, such as smoking cessation. On the latter, a 152 percent increase in the use of nicotine replacement therapy in the US the first year after its switch to nonprescription status yielded an estimated 114,000 to 304,000 new former smokers annually. That is up to 300,000 people each year who are able to reduce their risk of lung cancer, emphysema, stroke, heart attack and complications in pregnancy because of self-care products that help them stop. Today there are 1.1 billion smokers worldwide, and this number is expected to reach 1.6 billion by 2025. Readily available products to help people quit smoking takes on even greater importance in the context of this worldwide threat.
Cost benefits in self-medication
An aging population and growing healthcare costs raise the question of needs out-stripping available funds if the solvency of healthcare financing systems is to be maintained. For example, by 2010 the percentage of the population over 65 is projected to reach 22 percent in Japan and 16 percent in Europe. Meanwhile, access and affordability of healthcare are essential. Self-responsibility is one aspect in that picture, and nonprescription medicines are a part of that. Used appropriately, self-medication can increase access and improve the cost-benefit picture in certain areas.
Government and health professional outlooks
Many national and international organizations have looked at how best to establish and structure national drug policies within their healthcare systems. As a starting point, one fundamental to keep in mind was articulated at an International Conference on Primary Health Care, held in Alma-Ata in 1978:
“People have the right and duty to participate individually and collectively in the planning and implementation of their health care.”
In line with a philosophy of individual participation and empowerment, the World Health Organization has stated that responsible self-medication can:
- Help prevent and treat symptoms and ailments that do not require medical consultation;
- Reduce the increasing pressure on medical services for the relief of minor ailments, especially when financial and human resources are limited;
- Increase the availability of health care to populations living in rural or remote areas where access to medical advice may be difficult; and
- Enable patients to control their own chronic conditions.
As the most accessible form of health care, self-medication fills a series of valuable and sometimes crucial functions for individuals and healthcare systems. That healthcare systems as well as individuals benefit from self-medication emphasizes the need for clear policies by national governments. Those policies should recognize the positive role played by products specifically intended for self-medication and should meet their citizens’ desires to take an active role in their health. As a US Commissioner of Food and Drugs noted:
“The Food and Drug Administration accepts the concept of self-medication. The consumer demands it; the law provides for it; and it is in fact a vital part of our nation’s health care system.”
In Europe, the European Parliament stated that it:
“Considers that responsible self-medication should be further promoted, which will foster the growing desire of the European Union’s citizens to take responsibility for their own health and also help reduce health expenditure. In recent years, responsible self-medication has been identified as an important element in long term health policy by the institutions of the European Community.”
Health professional organizations have also drawn attention to the importance of self-medication. The World Medical Association, for example, published a statement on self-medication in 2002, drawing attention to some of the themes in this publication – the importance of a clear prescription-nonprescription distinction and the role and importance of labeling for safe and effective use, as well as guidance for physicians and their patients regarding responsible self-medication. The International Pharmaceutical Federation adopted a joint statement on self-medication with WSMI to highlight the common goals of our two groups: to provide high quality service to the public and to encourage the responsible use of medicines. The International Council of Nurses also adopted a joint statement on self-medication with WSMI to promote the responsible use of medicines.