India needs a thriving OTC ecosystem, now more than ever

Anil Joseph | Updated on August 11, 2021

A vibrant consumer health ecosystem can equip people with the knowledge and products to make informed decisions and pursue better health

Healthcare has taken centre-stage over the past year, and the industry has transformed rapidly to meet patient needs while combatting the pandemic. As the nation prepares for the next wave of Covid-19, it is important to ease the burden on the health system. And consumer health can play a vital role here. Scaling over-the-counter (OTC) solutions across the country will empower people to manage their health through OTC medicines for common ailments.

India is now uniquely poised to make decisions that will shape its healthcare system for a long time to come. A vibrant consumer health ecosystem is needed to equip people with the knowledge and products to make informed decisions and pursue better health, while freeing up valuable healthcare infrastructure.

Such a system would require the alignment of various stakeholders, from the government and healthcare providers to pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies. The need for accessible health solutions is a key driver of this trend, and digitalisation can be leveraged to broaden awareness, empowering individuals to maintain good health and undertake responsible self-care measures.

Driving access to healthcare

In India, many patients do not have access to needed medicines because they are unable to obtain a prescription. A number of factors can impede access, including the lack of a healthcare facility in close proximity, disparity in manpower or lack of trained medical professionals, as well as time or economic constraints. At other times, they resort to home remedies which may not always serve the intended purpose. As a result, patients often live with their symptoms, which impacts their quality of life. There is an urgent need for a well-regulated OTC market wherein a specified list of qualifying medicines can be purchased without a prescription, to provide relief for common conditions. This can drive access to treatments and form an essential component of a smoothly functioning healthcare system.

Recently, for example, the Indian Government approved self-testing Covid kits for home use, with clear guidelines for its monitoring and reporting. Diagnostics providers, including Abbott, have responded by providing self-tests accompanied by reporting apps that link directly to the ICMR national database, to enable swift reporting and immediate action. This underlines the benefits of responsible self-care on public health and reducing the burden on the healthcare system.

However, to deliver this benefit, OTC products must be regulated appropriately and separately from prescription products. Across both developed and developing pharmaceutical markets, the widespread adoption of policies that differentiate between prescription and non-prescription products reflects the potential to drive greater access to care. China and Brazil, for example, have a pathway to reclassify prescription medicines as OTC products. Moreover, clear guidelines for communications and advertising on OTC products in these countries helps ensure greater accuracy of claims, more reliable information, and enhanced patient safety. Similarly, well-defined policies and frameworks outlining regulations on marketing, distribution and consumption of OTC medicines are the need of the hour in India.

Educating patients is the key to empowerment

Consumer behaviours have shifted, with greater urbanisation and higher levels of education and awareness contributing to rising demand for OTC treatments. Today’s informed, tech-savvy consumers demand not just proactive care for ailments, such as in daily digestive health or stress-induced pains, but also immediate access to preventive care through immunity boosting solutions.

Meeting these consumer needs is important, but alongside this, it is also imperative to provide high quality information so patients can be adequately informed on potential adverse reactions, contraindications or the therapeutic value and administration of the medicines they buy. Providing reliable health information and championing patient safety will form key pillars of an OTC ecosystem that empowers consumers to make better, informed, and responsible choices.

Digitalization as an enabler of awareness

Leveraging digitalization can also scale access to health solutions and broaden the reach of the OTC ecosystem. Rising smartphone and internet usage has reshaped Indian consumer behaviour. According to a report by the Boston Consulting Group, 85 per cent of consumers check at least two data points before making purchase decisions. Similarly, a survey by Via Media revealed that 49 per cent of Indian internet users use digital media to read health information before consulting a doctor.

Thus, leveraging technology is essential to provide patients with key health information. For instance, the pharmaceutical industry is launching smart packaging for OTC products to ensure consumers can access educational materials, including product ingredients and recommended dosage, simply by scanning a QR code on the pack. This creates a holistic and connected OTC ecosystem that fills in knowledge gaps and promotes health awareness through the provision of relevant, reliable information to drive responsible use.

Consumer-centric innovations

Consumers within the OTC segment have also shown a growing demand for innovations to meet their needs. This drives immersive research to understand relevant need gaps and address them to create a more personalised healthcare ecosystem.

For example, in the antacids space, we can go beyond traditional syrup formats to create single-dose gels, stick packs and powdered sachets, thus combining scientifically proven formulations with convenience. This allows people to choose a format that works for their lifestyle, and benefit from effective symptom relief on the go. Such innovations reflect the way forward and will be encouraged by an ecosystem where OTC care is effectively regulated.

There are many benefits to a thriving, holistic OTC ecosystem, but they cannot be realised without the collaboration of government and private industry to enable and encourage appropriate regulations, technologies and innovations. Such collaboration should be guided by the central principle of patient centricity, and thus focus on empowering consumers so they can make informed and responsible choices for better health and wellness.

(The writer is Managing Director, Abbott India Limited. Views are personal)

Published on August 11, 2021

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