Rx for OTC

I went to the doctor yesterday.  I told him that to avoid altitude sickness in Peru I wanted a prescription for Diamox.  He used to be surprised when I self-diagnosed but he knows me now.  He wrote the prescription and I was done in less than four minutes.  I like my doctor but this visit took an hour of my time and probably cost the insurance company at least $100, my deductible was $25.  No big deal for me but a non-trivial expense for someone without insurance.

Why aren’t more pharmaceuticals available over the counter?  In other words, why must we pay the priestly caste known as physicians for the right to treat ourselves?  "Safety," we are told (second only to "for the children" as an excuse for giving up liberty).  But, as Sam Peltzman pointed out long ago, safety runs both ways.  Not getting a pharmaceutical because it’s too expensive and time consuming to go through a doctor has adverse safety consequences and there is no evidence that the costs of potential mistreatment outweigh the costs of undertreatment.  (In anycase, politics not safety is often the reason for restrictions on OTC drugs e.g. the morning after pill.)

In fact, there are many countries where prescriptions are not required for legal medicines and they appear to do just fine.  Writing in Reason, Kerry Howley points out (online version, the print version is longer and I am quoted) that in this respect if no other Myanmar is a bastion of rationality and liberty compared to the United States.

Last year, while living in the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar,
my phones were tapped, my journals were read, my work was censored, and
for the first time in my life, I was given the authority to care for my
own body.

There is no prescription drug system in Myanmar, but there are plenty of illnesses waiting to befall an effete Western immune system.  My expatriate colleagues and I were free to treat our ailments as we saw fit.
We staved off food poisoning and bouts of malaria with frequent trips to
the local pharmacy, consulting doctors when necessary, but ultimately
responsible for our own medical decisions. We formed doctor-patient
relationships that were partnerships rather than paternalistic
hierarchies, and each of us lived to tell the story.

Coming back to the States in the midst of hand-wringing about direct-to-consumer advertising, the restriction of life-saving cholesterol drugs, a wrenching process to make the morning-after-pill readily available, and now a push to put Sudafed behind the counter, it’s increasingly hard to understand why Americans cede crucial health decisions to the bureaucratic dithering of the FDA. In an age of empowerment through information, it is mind-boggling that patients are still willing to be silent spectators while their doctors call the shots.


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