Many medicines, or particular pack sizes of medicines, are only available through your community pharmacy, and some you need a doctor’s prescription for.
Even for medicines available without a prescription in a pharmacy, you may find that the pharmacy staff ask you some questions or, for some medicines, call the pharmacist over to talk to you.
The reason behind these controls over the sale of medicines lies in the Australian system of scheduling medicines which is designed to ensure medicines are used properly and safely, but remain available for people who need them.
The scheduling of medicines is a national classification system that controls how medicines and poisons are made available to the public. These medicines and poisons are classified into schedules of availability according to the level of regulatory control required to protect public health and safety.
When a medicine is approved for sale in Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) decides how freely it should be available — for example, on prescription only, pharmacy only or sold in supermarkets.
Generally the principle behind scheduling is that the safer the medicine, and the more minor the condition it is approved to treat, the more freely available the medicine is.
When looking at the scheduling of a medicine the TGSA may take into account:
- The safety of the medicine.
- The seriousness of the condition it is to be used for.
- The effects when used correctly.
- Possible side effects.
- The likelihood of accidental or deliberate misuse.
- Effects if taken accidentally by children.
- Effects of an overdose
- Potential for people to become dependent on it.
- Benefits of making it easily available.
In the pharmacy setting, the two main schedules – apart from prescription-only medicines – are pharmacist-only medicines and pharmacy-only medicines
Pharmacist-only medicines are stored behind the pharmacist’s counter. You can buy them only after talking to a pharmacist who will ask you some questions and give you advice to make sure they are appropriate and safe for you.
Pharmacy-only medicines are stored on the open shelves in pharmacies. You do not have to seek advice from a pharmacist before buying them, but if you want advice you can ask for it.
Non-prescription medicines that do not fall into either of these schedule categories can be sold in supermarkets, grocery stores, and health food stores as well as pharmacies.
In some cases, the packet size may determine where and how the medicine can be sold which may result in small packets of some medicines being available in supermarkets and other retail outlets, while packets containing more tablets, or higher doses of the same medicine are available only in pharmacies.
An example of this is paracetamol, with supermarkets able to sell packets of only 20 tablets or less, while packets of more than 20 tablets can be sold only in pharmacies.
Regardless of the scheduling, it is always a good practice to discuss your medicines with your community pharmacist and to have any concerns or questions addressed for you.