How Much Are Your Drugs Worth? Possible Unintended Consequences of Labelling

DrugsAnyone who knows the brilliant satirical magazine and website The Onion will know that sometimes their stories get picked up and taken as reality by other media outlets, who then do a “shock horror” about a totally made-up Onion tale.

So when we saw “UK will label drugs with their cost to the State,” we thought at first this was an Onion story. But no, apparently it is true. Jeremy Hunt, the health Minister, says that the packaging on all prescription medicines over £20 will be labelled with their cost and will also say “Funded by the UK taxpayer.”

Now this is intended to make people less likely to waste their medicine by reminding them of the cost. Apparently. But there would seem to be at least four other unintended but fairly likely consequences:

  1. A number of people feeling guilty about how much they are costing the State and perhaps not going to the doctor or getting repeat prescriptions. I can imagine my Mother feeling like that.
  2. On a similar note, people thinking , gosh that drug is expensive, I won’t take the full course of treatment, I will save some for next time I need it. Which in certain cases can have disastrous consequences for the individual and even more widely in society e.g. increased resistance of bacteria to antibiotics.
  3. As Roy Lilley pointed out, if this extends to lower-priced drugs, people might realise that many of the generic drugs prescribed cost a whole lot less than the UK prescription fee of £8.20 (of course, many people get free prescriptions). But this might open up a can of worms with patients saying, “hang on, I can buy these drugs more cheaply on the Internet.”
  4. At the other extreme, I can see some patients seeing that their drugs cost hundreds of pounds and thinking “I wonder if I can sell these?” I predict we’re going to see an eBay-type market in NHS prescription drugs soon. If it doesn’t exist already.

All in all, I’m all in favour of people taking personal responsibility, and maybe the benefits of this action will outweigh the risks. But I have my doubts.

Roy Lilley’s piece also drew out attention to a number of websites which are offering online and mobile consultations with doctors, with prescriptions for drugs to be picked up within hours. It looks like technology, which has been so disruptive to many other industries, is beginning to do the same in the medical world. Maybe the NHS, moving into increasing crisis mode, will be saved by technological innovation coming from outside itself? I can see a lot of individuals, and firms (on behalf of their staff) looking at something like Babylon Health and thinking “this is just what I need.”

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