New Delhi: A ministry of chemicals and fertilizers’ proposal to train pharmacy store salespeople in a bid to tighten prescription practices and ensure that medicines are not wrongly dispensed has run into fierce opposition.
Right dose? The chemicals ministry’s idea is to increase competency among salespeople and reduce chances of a wrong drug being given out.
The move, supported by the chemist associations, has been stuck at the health ministry, which is adamant that the Indian laws only allow qualified pharmacists to dispense drugs and nobody else ought to be doing that anyway, as that would qualify as a violation of the law.
But the chemicals ministry says its training proposal is a way to increase the competency among salespeople at drug shop counters without infringing on the existing legal requirement that a pharmacist be present in every pharmacy shop in India.
“The chemist shop can only function if there is a qualified pharmacist” under whose name a licence has been issued, said a senior official in the ministry of chemicals and fertilizers referring to provisions in the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940. “But there are a bunch of unqualified salesmen (in the drug stores) as well. These people, too, should be trained at a very basic level so that the possibility of mistakes is reduced.”
Union minister for chemicals and fertilizers Ram Vilas Paswan, in an earlier interview with Mint, had expressed concern over untrained people dispensing medicines in chemist shops and the possibility of a wrong drug being given out.
The need for making the salespeople at chemist shops more adept at handing out medicines can also be viewed in the backdrop of serious shortages for pharmacists, at least in the short run.
Some 3,000 new drug retail stores have been announced by companies such as Fortis HealthWorld, Apollo Pharmacy and Manipal Cure and Care, to be set up over the next five years in what is a Rs34,000 crore annual drug segment. The nationwide demand for pharmacists is expected to double from under 100,000 currently to roughly 200,000 in just five years.
As per the All India Council for Technical Education, the technical education regulator, there are 445 colleges that offer pharmacy degrees, with 24,672 slots each year, and about 30 post graduation institutions. Meanwhile, adding to the shortage in drug stores, many new graduates prefer to work for drug makers or end up in other jobs.
As modern pharmacy retailing takes off — most of India’s drug stores are small mom-and-pop shops — a large army of trained salespeople could take some burden off the pharmacist as well as mitigate the risk of wrong medicines being given out, says the ministry official.
There are 300,000 drug retail shops and if each outlet has a minimum of two salesmen, 600,000 people will need to be covered under this initiative. The training sessions — of 45 days or so — could be conducted in a local pharmacy college, added the official.
The industry association, the All India Organization of Chemists and Druggists (AIOCD) is supporting the move.
R.B. Puri, former president of AIOCD and currently heading the Rajasthan Chemists Association — one of the state chapters of AIOCD — welcomed the chemical ministry’s move and said the association would be willing to contribute in the initiative.
“Even at our level, we are training people in batches of 200-250 where we update them on the latest drugs and storage processes,” he said. “About 80-90% of the attendees are pharmacists but anybody else from the field too can come.”
He added that such training programmes were being conducted in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, and there were plans to expand the programmes, over time, across India.
The ministry of health and family welfare, which is the nodal ministry for all issues pertaining to health and drug safety regulation in the country, has objected to this proposal as it says this would be against the spirit of Drugs and Cosmetics Act.
“No pharmacy can run without a pharmacist and anybody who is not a pharmacist should not be dispensing drugs in the first place,” said a health ministry official, sticking to a position that is already widely flouted in most pharmacy stores in India.
Concurs Prafull D. Sheth, vice-president of the industry think tank International Pharmaceutical Federation. “On the one hand, you say salesmen are not expected to dispense medicines and a pharmacist has to be on duty throughout as per law,” he said. “On the other hand, such a training will imply that someone else is qualified enough to hand out medicines.”
Sheth says the training proposal is a “retrograde step” that will marginalize the pharmacists and legitimize non-pharmacists dispensing drugs.
“The law says medicines should be given under the supervision of the pharmacist but doesn’t say that only one person has to give drugs,” argues Puri. “With 20 customers queuing up at the shop counter, how can one person keep on servicing all? Why should the others not be imparted information and training if that can assure better services and right drug dosages to the consumers?”