If you’re like most Americans, you likely live within five miles of a local pharmacy and have used them to pick up prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs that you rely on for your health.

Whether you’re there because your doctor prescribed you a short course of antibiotics, you’re refilling a prescription for an ongoing chronic condition or you simply need to buy aspirin off the shelf to relieve a headache, pharmacies are a mainstay of public health. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 131 million Americans use prescription medications that they receive from pharmacies.

Yet, despite how common and widely used pharmacies are, pharmacists – yes, the ones behind the counters – are often underutilized.

Pharmacists undergo four years of education to receive their professional doctorate degree and typically one to two years of residency training, making them uniquely qualified to do more than dispense medications. They play an integral role in ensuring the health and safety of millions.

“Pharmacists can provide a tremendous amount of medication information, advice and support to patients to ensure they are getting the safest treatment and experiencing the best response,” says Daniel Krinsky, pharmacy consultant and founder of EduCare4U.

Services a Pharmacist Can Provide

Services your pharmacist can provide that you might not know about include:

It’s important for people to talk with their pharmacists, especially when it comes to asking questions about their medications.

“We know pharmacists are busy behind the counter filling prescriptions and working with patients and don’t spend a lot of time in the pharmacy aisles where the OTCs are located, but pharmacists are always available for questions around side effects, dosage, drug interactions and everything in between,” Krinsky says.

Pharmacist Survey Results

According to a U.S. News & World Report survey conducted by The Harris Poll in March 2023, about 7 in 10 pharmacists (71%) wish consumers would ask them more often about which OTC medications would be recommended for their health ailments. More than 350 pharmacists nationwide from chain, independent and hospital pharmacies participated in the online survey.

“This research provides a unique pharmacist lens into consumer interactions, clearly showing that pharmacists don’t feel consumers are taking advantage of the resources that they offer,” says Rob Jekielek, managing director at The Harris Poll. “The main takeaway is that there is a major opportunity for patients to consult with pharmacists more frequently on a range of medication questions, particularly around the safe use of OTC medications.”

Based on the experts’ feedback, some of the top questions pharmacists wish consumers would ask include:

Almost three quarters of pharmacists (74%) surveyed want patients to ask them about fatigue and other common side effects from OTC medications. The best way to get informed about potential side effects is reading the drug facts label on the OTC product, but the information may not always be easy to understand.

“I always encourage patients to talk to their pharmacists,” Krinsky says. “It’s particularly important to ask about side effects when the individual is taking other prescriptions or OTC medications because the side effects can be magnified when combined with other medications.”

“Before starting OTC medications, it’s strongly recommended that individuals who are pregnant check with their doctor or pharmacist about potential side effects and precautions,” says Hanna Phan, a clinical associate professor at the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Experts encourage people to ask about what foods they should avoid with certain medications. Green leafy vegetables, grapefruit, caffeinated beverages and other food and beverages may interact with your medication and potentially change the drug’s effect or potency or could lead to additional or more severe side effects.

In addition, because vitamins, supplements and herbal medicines are not regulated by the FDA, there is limited science and evidence to confirm their effectiveness, safety and quality.

“We know there are many quality manufacturers of supplements, and those are the ones that are on pharmacy shelves, but it’s strongly recommended that people talk about supplements with their pharmacist and other providers, especially when wanting to combine them with prescription or OTC medications,” Krinsky says.

Labels on OTC medications often include information about how long to take medications or provide guidance on when to stop taking the treatment, but it’s important to ask your pharmacist about long-term use and its effects.

“It’s one thing for people to regularly take melatonin to aid in falling asleep, but it’s another thing for them to take high-dose OTC acetaminophen every day for a year because of possible liver toxicity issues that result from ongoing use,” Krinsky explains. “When in doubt, always talk to your pharmacist about how long it’s safe to take OTCs.”

There are certain OTCs that should be taken with food and some on an empty stomach. OTC heartburn relief medications are a good example of a medicine that needs to be taken without any food, but ibuprofen should be taken with food to avoid an upset stomach.

Some people may think it’s okay to take more OTC medicines rather than their prescription equivalents. Yet, sometimes a prescription version will be offered instead.

“There may be medical reasons why doctors prescribe prescription pain medications to provide relief,” Phan says. “If you are not comfortable using prescription medication for pain, let your provider know, so you both can discuss possible options.”

When a person misses a dose of an OTC medicine, pharmacists often recommend waiting till the next dose.

“Definitely do not take the OTC twice to make up for a missed dose,” Krinsky says. “We don’t want patients to get in the habit of double dosing because that could potentially lead to unsafe situations.”

According to the survey, 72% of pharmacists are concerned that people think it’s okay for children to take adult OTC medications even when the dose is reduced.

“Infants and young children often need smaller doses that are best measured using their appropriately designated liquid formulations,” Phan explains. “Substituting adult forms, which are often tablets or capsules, can be inaccurate and may increase risk for medication errors, such as overdose.”

Additionally, small children are often not able to properly swallow tablets or capsules. Since adult forms are often larger tablets or capsules, use of them could pose a serious choking risk.

According to the survey, another question that topped the results was the topic of medication affordability. About 7 in 10 (71%) of pharmacists said that patients should ask if there are more affordable options for OTC medications.

On the pharmacy shelves, there are a lot of options for consumers to choose from, including brand-name OTCs, generic forms and store-brands sold by CVS, Walgreens and certain grocery and supermarket chains.

“There’s sometimes a misperception that brand-name drugs are higher quality because of their household name and the advertising that consumers see all the time,” Krinsky says. “The bottom line is that brand and generic versions are the same because they are both regulated by the FDA for quality and safety.”

Keeping a Medication List

“The medication list should be maintained and updated on a regular basis if new medications are being taken or dosages have been adjusted,” Krinsky adds.

“Keeping a list of your medications with you to share with your pharmacist or other health care provider can make the biggest difference in avoiding side effects and drug-drug interactions,” Phan says. “That list should include vitamins and supplements, including herbal products, because they can sometimes interact with other medications.”

Medication lists can be simply kept in a small notebook or in electronic medical records with a health care system or smartphone apps that help manage medications, dosages and provide reminders. Some phone apps allow patients to share their information with loved ones so they can easily access the information, especially in case of emergencies.

  • Mango Health.
  • Medisafe.
  • MedManage.
  • MyMedSchedule Plus.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that pharmacists can help you with so much more than simply refilling your prescriptions.

The next time you shop the pharmacy aisles or pick up your next prescription at the window, take advantage of the wealth of knowledge and expertise pharmacists have to offer.

“If you ever have any questions about OTC medications, take the extra time and talk to the pharmacist,” Krinsky says. “It’s our job to make sure patients are taking the safest product that will provide the best result.”

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