Self-diagnosis is no cure-all

The number of people who want to diagnose and treat themselves with over-the-counter medicines or vitamins, minerals and supplements is increasing

Social trends and the greater availability of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines have led to consumers becoming increasingly willing to make more healthcare decisions without consulting a doctor, according to Datamonitor research.

Alongside this, government is keen to cap future healthcare spending as an ageing population puts increasing strain on national healthcare resources. To achieve this, pharmaceutical companies are being encouraged to make more drugs available over-the-counter, as well as educating the public so that they can make more healthcare decisions themselves.

This has led to a general change in attitudes of people in developed countries towards their own healthcare, as well as the role of healthcare professionals. In the past, people have passively accepted medical decisions concerning their health and the healthcare facilities at their disposal. They now wish to play a greater role and take more responsibility for their own health. Many consumers are also looking outside the traditional realm of pharmaceuticals to products such as vitamins, supplements and herbal remedies.

Datamonitor figures suggest that a visit to the doctor ranks fairly low when treating an illness, with over-the-counter medicine being the most common solution. Highly significant results for alternative medicine, short course vitamins, minerals and supplements (VMS) and dietary change also indicate that these are major areas when considering self-medication.

The changing role of the retail sector is also having a profound impact on consumers’ self-medication habits. Pharmacists are pushing to extend their role in self-medication, partly as a result of the rise in private label and generic drugs, but also in search of greater profits. In general, pharmacists are in favour of promoting self-medication and are taking a greater role in advising patients and supporting manufacturer moves towards more OTC products.

The forecast sales values indicate that the Europea

n OTC market will continue growing between 2000 and 2006 at an average rate of 2.5 per cent per annum, slower than the 3.6 per cent growth between 1996 and 2000. The growth in VMS sales is expected to increase, averaging 3.2 per cent annual growth between 2000 and 2006. The Internet also helps as it allows for consumer-to-consumer communication, which increases their confidence in the effectiveness of such products in the light of uncertain scientific evidence.

The Datamonitor study also found that significant gender differences exist in self-medication habits. Women suffer from complaints they deem worthy of treatment more often than men, and are more likely to resort to OTC, VMS, alternative therapies or changes in diet when they are unwell.

Evidence from focus groups reveals that the most significant barrier to the wider acceptance and use of complementary medicine is a general lack of information, as most people are unaware that such products exist.

On the whole, women who are aware of alternative remedies or products – but do not use them – want more information about them. Men have far greater trust in conventional medicine and largely want it to provide symptomatic relief, whereas women are far less trusting of doctors and the pharmaceutical industry, and want more holistic cures. Some 44 per cent of men, compared with 33 per cent of women, believe that conventional medicine is superior to alternative medicine. Also 61 per cent of men, compared with 49 per cent of women, will take whatever medicines are necessary to make a problem go away.

Men would like to see alternative therapies subjected to testing before they would be persuaded to try them – with only 25 per cent preferring to use natural solutions, compared with 46 per cent of women. Some 26 per cent of men and 38 per cent of women will only take prescribed or OTC medicines as a last resort. However, the majority of both male and female respondents say that they would accept a recommendation of a trusted friend, local doctor, or a recognised, independent body.

Datamonitor analysts fear that this leaves complementary medicine caught in a vicious circle – only if more people try alternative remedies and they work will the rest of the population be willing to try them. It does seem, though, that much of the mistrust expressed towards alternative remedies is because of ignorance and a lack of understanding, and therefore could be overcome through education and information. The study suggests that one of the main ways of disseminating information may be through the Internet and that this may prove to be a catalyst in the growth of this trend.

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