06/24/2011 11:15 am ET | Updated Aug 24, 2011

More Reliance on Over-the-Counter Medicine Could Save Billions

Everyone is looking for ways to reduce healthcare costs while also improving care. Healthcare expenditures in the U.S. surpassed $2.3 trillion in 2008. For a variety of reasons, many Americans under-use or lack access to low cost over-the-counter (OTC) medicines that can effectively treat minor ailments preventing them from becoming more serious. A report I have just completed for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association on this subject suggests that greater use of safe, effective and low cost OTCs could help Americans cut healthcare costs and ease the burden on overworked primary care physicians.

Our research focused on the potential benefits of greater self-management of health conditions like pain and heartburn through increased use of OTC medicines. If there were more self-management, we believe it could reduce unnecessary patient visits to primary care doctors, saving billions of dollars and the time of these doctors who are in short supply. Our estimate is that more self-management and greater use of OTC medicines would save consumers and taxpayers roughly $5.2 billion annually, and this estimate is conservative.

More reliance on self-management and OTC medicines as a first line of treatment could also: reduce time lost from work by consumers and related costs to employers; reduce time lost from school; reduce the likelihood of minor ailments becoming so serious that more expensive care is needed; and permit pharmacists to spend less time dispensing prescriptions and more time working as informed advisers on pharmaceutical alternatives. In these ways, greater self-management of healthcare has the potential to make an important contribution to improved health for Americans.

A survey carried out in 2010 suggests that about 90 percent of Americans and a similar proportion of doctors recognize that OTC medicines are an effective first line of defense in the case of many minor conditions. The task is to convince more people that this low cost option is a cost-effective one that could improve their health and save the Nation's healthcare system billions in the process.

Disclosure: This post is based on a report I have just completed for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, the not-for-profit association representing the makers of over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements.