In March 2018, the National Health Service began implementing changes to the routine prescribing of over-the-counter medicines following a major consultation aimed at freeing up more money for frontline care. For example, in the year prior to June 2017, the NHS spent approximately £569 million on prescriptions for medicines which can be purchased over the counter from a pharmacy and other outlets such as supermarkets. Many over-the-counter medicines are currently prescribed and subsidised by the NHS – incurring additional charges, such as dispensing and consultation fees, and other admin costs – when they could be purchased directly by the patient over the counter. For these reasons, some common tablets can end up being four times more expensive when provided on prescription. 

Following the conclusion of the consultation on reducing prescribing of over-the-counter medicines for minor, short-term health concerns in March 2018 I experienced some challenges regarding my eye lubricants. My problems began in January 2019, when I was informed by my GP that I would no longer be prescribed my eye lubricants for dry eyes. My GP told me that because the eye drops were an over-the-counter medication, from this point on I would need to purchase them myself. I was rather shocked and alarmed, not to mention concerned about the financial impact it would have. I hadn’t budgeted for the additional cost of regular eye ointment alongside the annual prescription certificate I require.

This was a result of the NHS’ new commitment to curbing routine prescribing for minor, short-term conditions following the consultation, in order to free up more funds for frontline care. While I support the money saving measures – for example, the NHS spends £2.8 million every year just on diarrhoea, which is enough to fund 2912 cataract operations – it’s important that GPs and surgeries understand the exceptions to the new measures.  

The prescriptions that are affected include items for a condition:

  • That is considered to be self-limitingand so does not need treatment as it will heal of its own accord;
  • Which lends itself to self-care, i.e. that the person suffering does not normally need to seek medical care but may decide to seek help with symptom relief from a local pharmacy and use an over the counter medicine.

This also includes vitamins/minerals and probiotics.

However, unfortunately for me, my condition of dry eyes isn’t a short-term problem that will cure itself. Not all GPs or patients are aware that the guidance does not affect prescribing of over the counter items for longer term or more complex conditions or where minor illnesses are symptomatic or a side effect of something more serious. Armed with this information I was equipped to confront and oppose the decision that had been made in relation to my eye ointment. With some firm, yet fastidious persistence, the ruling concerning my medication for dry eyes was overturned.

For anyone currently experiencing challenges for over-the-counter medication – which is required for a long-term condition – speak with your GP directly as the decision is theirs to make. If the outcome isn’t to your satisfaction be persistent and point them to the NHS England guidelines if necessary. While it’s crucially important that the NHS is able to make savings, and spend taxpayers’ money as prudently as possible, if you require over-the-counter medication for your long-term condition, you are excepted, and make sure you make this clear to your GP.

By Masuma Ali