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More patients in Japan turn to 'portioned' OTC drugs amid pandemic

President and pharmacist Yui Ishii, left, provides counseling to a customer at Alice Pharmacy in Osaka's Kita Ward on Sept. 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Kaoru Nagasaki)

OSAKA -- Amid concerns about coronavirus infections at hospitals in Japan, more and more patients are turning to pharmacies selling just the necessary amounts of prescription-free drugs, which spares customers the hassle of visiting hospitals only to get regular prescriptions.

    In Osaka Prefecture, a pharmacy has launched a members-only service for portioned sales of ethical drugs and has been receiving positive feedback from its clients.

    Drugs and medicines are classified into non-prescription drugs that can be purchased at drugstores and elsewhere, and ethical drugs that require doctors' prescriptions and instructions. Most ethical drugs are prescription-only drugs and the remaining also basically require prescriptions, but a notice issued in 2005 by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare paved the way for patients to purchase drugs without prescriptions if they meet certain conditions.

    Under the protocol, pharmacists encourage patients to visit hospitals as necessary before selling the minimum necessary amounts of drugs over the counter. Pharmacies are required to keep tabs on the sales records such as the date of sale, the amounts of drugs sold and the patients' contact information, as well as on the patients' medication history. Unlike prescription drugs, these on-demand drugs are not covered by health insurance, but some patients find their burdens alleviated as they are free from medical consultation fees and basic dispensing fees.

    At Alice Pharmacy that opened in the Kitashinchi entertainment quarter in the city of Osaka's Kita Ward in August, drugs including painkillers, vitamin supplements, gastrointestinal drugs and Chinese herbal medicines are on offer for portioned sales.

    President and pharmacist Yui Ishii, 33, said, "We are sort of in between a drugstore and a hospital. We can cater to the needs of patients wanting us to give them the details of drugs they take and offer consultations as they seek to medicate themselves."

    The Kitashinchi store is the second branch of the membership-based pharmacy after its first outlet opened in Sakaisuji-Hommachi in 2017. As of now, over 4,000 customers are signed up with the latter store.

    President Yui Ishii responds to divided sales of medicinal products, at Alice Pharmacy in Osaka's Kita Ward on Sept. 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Kaoru Nagasaki)

    Since the spread of the coronavirus, the number of customers visiting Alice Pharmacy outlets has been on the rise. "Considering infection risks, many patients say they are scared of visiting hospitals," Ishii says.

    The pharmacy makes sure to provide thorough counseling to customers so as to avoid unlimited sales of drugs. "Some visitors urge us to give them drugs right away, but we get them to listen closely to our explanations in person. To those who have been prescribed large quantities of medicine, we advise that they first get treated by doctors."

    Pharmacists are required to be broadly aware of side effects, drug allergies, additives and other information and provide explanations to patients in an easy-to-understand manner. As they listen to patients until they open up about the situations and problems they face, their counseling for each patient sometimes takes over an hour.

    "It's also essential to serve our customers well and follow up on them after selling our drugs. We make sure to clear up customers' doubts and anxieties and respond to them until they are convinced," Ishii stressed.

    An official at the Osaka Municipal Government's living and health division, which deals with applications for licenses to open pharmacies, commented, "We want patients to understand that seeing a doctor and getting them to fill prescriptions is the whole premise, and that divided drug sales is only an option when that's absolutely necessary. We've been instructing pharmacies to follow up on the post-sales conditions of recipients."

    (Japanese original by Kaoru Nagasaki, Osaka Bureau)

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