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Focus groups, market tests, trials and such are all important ways for large pharmaceutical firms to get the information they need when developing new products and introducing them to the market. Sometimes, however, what might seem like a good direction with regard to a product may miss the mark because not enough attention has been paid to the opinions and suggestions of professionals on the front lines, that deal directly with the public on a daily basis.
That's why I went to visit our local pharmacist.
Paloma Martinez Sarri has been working at the pharmacy near the office for 13 of her 15 years as a professional pharmacist. She worked for one year in a lab but preferred to deal with people directly and offer her skills to assist the public. A brief chat with her yielded a lot of information, about the role of the pharmacist in Spain, about pharmaceutical trends, and about current issues affecting consumers.
Frank: Paloma, what trends have you noticed of late with regard to the products you sell? Have there been any noticeable changes in the sorts of things people buy?
Paloma: Well, you have to distinguish between seasonal peaks and overall trends. Every year, there are always peaks in sales when the seasons change, when cultural happenings occur. For example, every year in the spring, we get a lot of allergy sufferers come in for specific products, while in the winter, people come in to order cold medication and preventative treatments.
Frank: Do you find yourself offering a lot of suggestions on products to take? Usually, when I go to the pharmacy - and please don't take this the wrong way - it's simply to get a prescription filled, I don't really interact very much with the pharmacist to get information.
Paloma: That's understandable, you're a young man, no offense taken. As people get older, they rely on us more to answer questions, that's part of what we do here. In Spain, the healthcare system depends on us, because to a degree, we're the first level of response in non-emergencies. We're trained to counsel people and we know when to have them see their GP, in the same way that that GP has the option of sending them to a specialist. We're trained for that here, it's a 5-year course, one of the reasons we're valued abroad, where pharmacists don't normally study as long. We have to offer advice on how to take all sorts of medications, interactions between drugs, interactions between foods and drugs, etc.
Frank: OK, so back to what I was saying before about trends. Have you noticed anything of late with regard to buying patterns?
Paloma: A few. Certain medications have begun to taper off, due to austerity measures imposed by the government. Now, there's a higher co-pay on many medications, which doesn't matter too much when you're talking about a treatment that costs 2.00€, but can affect a family or retired person if it costs 50.00€. Even though medication is still quite affordable here, some people can't manage it. There's also a trend toward homeopathic medication, which I think is based on several factors, such as fashion, but also due to people wanting treatments that are easier to deal with. Say for example, a senior that's taking Sintrom, well, he can't eat leafy green vegetables, and a variety of drugs that interact. Or people that have gone to the doctor and been told they have anaemia and need iron, but their doctor told them to have it in the morning, but you shouldn't because here everyone has coffee in the morning with milk, and the calcium in that milk is going to interact with the iron so you can't absorb it. People are starting to wake up to the fact that it's not just a question of fixing something with a pill, it's about constancy in diet, exercise, supplements, and so on.
Frank: So, have you studied homeopathic remedies?
Paloma: Yes, I'm actually doing my fourth year in a Master's program.
Frank: Now, at this pharmacy, what would you say is the most popular item among clients?
Paloma: Right now? The most sold is definitely Omeprazol. It just irks me that a lot of people take it incorrectly. Many now use it when they have an upset stomach or acid, and the truth is, it's not designed for that.
Frank: Understood, it's a gastro-protector after all. I can see that for older people, but what about young people? What do they buy?
Paloma: Mostly vitamin supplements or energy compounds, to study, for the gym, to go out dancing on the weekend from dusk 'til dawn, that sort of thing. Which, in my opinion, isn't the best thing to do. Supplements are good for a specific issue, but not taken in that fashion.
Frank: I see. Do people have any specific issues with the packaging here? What I mean is, do people ever come to you with problems like not being able to open the pack, or not using the pack correctly?
Paloma: Sure, mostly older people with reduced dexterity or vision problems. The thing is, packaging here is very informative, it has to be legally. It's in Braille, it comes with clear dosage indications on the box, with bar codes that contain vital information, whether it has gluten, or lactose - it's really very good. The problem is often inside the box. The customer may be accustomed to a brand's look and style, say a long yellow tablet, and then the generic version comes out in a round red pill, and our older customers get frazzled. We often hear things like "I need Verelan, but I want the big blue one". Or the doctor moves them from a Mylan product to a Cinfa product...the problem is, we can't know the configuration of each brand and it's 50 generics. They also have issues reading the prospectus, opening certain CRC closures, and such. Sometimes, we'll offer them a generic substitute that might have better packaging for them, or that's designed for them.
Frank: And what about the packaging here? What's the most common sort?
Paloma: I'd have to say blister packs. They're the most common and in my opinion the most hygienic. I was talking about Omeprazol earlier, I'm not keen on the fact it's sold in jars, it means people shake a few out into their hands, take one, then put the rest back for later. That's not appropriate. Not to mention the fact that it's light-sensitive. The thing is, customers are becoming more informed these days, especially with regard to their medications thanks to the Internet, but that can be good and bad. It's good because people have access to good information and are better consumers. It can be bad when they quote the wrong information or think they know more than they do because they read two sentences on WebMD.
Frank: Yes, I can see that would be an issue. Paloma, it's been very nice speaking with you today, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat, it's been very informative.
Paloma: My pleasure, come back any time.