November 9, 2004
Over-the-Counter Drugs Could Save $4.75 Billion Annually
Using nonprescription, or over-the-counter (OTC), medications to treat common upper respiratory infections could save $4.75 billion a year, according to a new study conducted by researchers from Northwestern University.
The study, which was sponsored by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association and was presented on October 28 at a meeting of the World Self-Medication Industry in Beijing, demonstrates that most savings from taking OTC medications stem from improving work productivity and reducing unnecessary physician visits.
The study, led by Martin S. Lipsky, MD, adjunct professor of family medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford, compared the results of using OTC medications to treat upper respiratory infections with nontreatment.
Dr. Lipsky and colleages found an average cost savings of $9 per episode among adults using OTCs to treat their symptoms. With an average of three upper respiratory infection episodes per person per year among Americans age 18 to 65, this translates to potential annual savings of $4.75 billion.
“Many factors involved in the treatment of common upper respiratory infections contribute to a major economic burden. This study suggests that when adults use OTC medications to treat their symptoms, not only is there a symptom benefit, but there also appears to be a substantial cost savings to the healthcare system and the economy alike,” Dr. Lipsky said.
“It’s important for people to understand the signs and symptoms of these common conditions and know that many nonprescription products are available to treat symptoms at a fairly low cost,” Dr. Lipsky said.
The common cold is a leading cause of missed workdays and decreased productivity, resulting in an average loss of 8.7 work hours per cold episode. The economic impact of this lost productivity is estimated at $25 billion, with $16.6 billion attributed to on-the-job productivity loss.
“Each year, especially during cold season, the economy takes a big hit from missed time from work and loss of on-the-job productivity,” said study economist Teresa Waters, associate director for research, Center for Health Services Research, and associate professor of preventative medicine, University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
“By alleviating symptoms, OTCs keep people more productive and reduce physician visits without compromising health outcomes. This may be the first study to clearly demonstrate these benefits from the use of nonprescription medications,” Waters said.
Researchers incorporated a series of key factors related to the treatment of common upper respiratory infections, including OTC medicine use and side effects, impact on work productivity, physician care by phone and in office, emergency department care, antibiotic use and side effects, hospital admission for complications of upper respiratory infection, and hospital admission for complications of antibiotic use. Under baseline assumptions, OTC use was less expensive than non-treatment: $184 per upper respiratory infection episode (OTC use) compared with $193 per episode (nontreatment).
Upper respiratory infections include several conditions such as the common cold and sore throat. Each year, Americans suffer from about one billion colds. These colds result in approximately 15 million lost workdays each year in the United States.
Many different symptoms are associated with upper respiratory infections, which may be caused by a variety of factors including congestion, cough, fever, and nasal obstruction. Upper respiratory infections, such as the common cold, coughs, and the flu, are often caused by viruses, whose symptoms can be treated with OTC medications.