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Australian Journal of Pharmacy : February 2005
complementa complementary medicine Anna Day, Communications Manager, Complementary Healthcare Council of Australia email@example.com Up-skilling benefits your customers and your bottom line While sales of complementary medicines are booming they are five times higher in health food stores than in pharmacies M ANY pharmacists are failing to grasp the potential sales of comple- mentary medicines, are vulnerable to legal action because of uneducated advice proffered by themselves or their phar- macy assistants, and could be restricting the healthy life expectancy of many of their customers. These are harsh claims, but let’s look at the facts. On the surface, everything looks rosy. Sales of complementary medicines in pharmacies are booming (see Figure One). Sales in November alone were up almost 30 per cent, according to market research organisation, Aztec Information Systems. That is greater than the increase in sales in supermarkets. Specific products sold particularly well. Glucosamine sales were up 114 per cent in pharmacies. Fish oil sales were up 46 per cent. But that was from a very low base. In comparison to health food stores’ sales of supplements, these sales are trivial, if taken on a store-by-store comparison. Health food stores, of which there are about 500 nationwide, are each selling five times as many supplement products as each of the almost 5,000 pharmacies. Why? Recently I was in an upmarket suburban pharmacy in Canberra. An assistant was serving a woman who held a bottle of multivitamins from one of the smaller providers. ‘What do you think of this one?’ asked the customer. ‘Oh well, that one’s a bit more herbally than the oth- ers,’ said the assistant. Enough said? Who’s driving sales? The increase in complementary medicine sales in pharmacies does not appear to be driven by the efforts of the pharmacies or their assistants. It is coming from a certain sector of the public which is reasonably up to date with the research flooding out of the interna- tionally-renowned health research insti- tutes. This is mainstream research verify- ing claims for many if not most of the complementary medicines lining the health food stores’ shelves. So where do consumers’ find their information? The Medical Journal of Australia reports that consumers’ knowledge is coming from advertisements, family and friends. However, anecdotal reports from health food stores would suggest that the consumers are also scouring the Internet. This raises concerns in some that the public are being duped by Internet sites that promote products for commercial gain rather than health improvement. Such concerns remain, as yet, unproven. Generally, research articles come up first when one searches for a certain product or disease via an Internet search engine. The alternative source of information is health food stores, and based on their sales figures being five times higher than pharmacies, those stores are doing a great job catering to complementary medicine purchasers, increasing sales per customer because of the sales people’s knowledge, and most probably passion, for the com- plementary health sector. Quality of advice That brings us to the issue of the quality of service being provided in pharmacies. Does it matter? Presumably pharmacies want to increase their sales of comple- 106 ? THE AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF PHARMACY VOL.86 FEBRUARY 2005 mentary medicines to catch up to the health food stores. One could argue that the market size could not accommodate that increase, but pharmacies educating their customers on the use of comple- mentary medicines would seem to pro- vide an opportunity to improve health outcomes, while increasing pharmacy profits by increasing the market size. The problem is pharmacists and their pharmacy assistants need to increase their own knowledge of the products on their shelves in order to increase sales. That does not mean relying on company brochures and workshops. In a report just released by the US Insti- tute of Medicine of the National Acade- mies on Complementary and Alternative Medi- cine, the Institute called on medical practitioners to up-skill on complemen- tary medicines. Former AMA President, Dr Kerryn Phelps, once critical of complementary medicine but now involved in their pro- motion and sale, made similar statements while leading the AMA. She warned of possible legal action against medical practitioners for negli- gence (as has happened in the US) if not informed about potential benefits and potential adverse effects of complemen- tary medicines and therapies. She said it was important that doctors accessed detailed evidence-based information on complementary medicines in the same way they are informed about mainstream medicines and therapies. With the increasing role of pharmacists providing medical advice (because of the cost and availability of general practition-