Easy Medical Product Access Not An Unmitigated Good

Anyone with significant medical needs can tell you that medications and other healthcare supplies like splints, mobility aids, or blood glucose monitors are expensive. In fact, even when they’re partially covered by health insurance, they can come with substantial upfront or out-of-pocket costs. That’s why most people would argue that being able to buy medical products online is generally a good thing. After all, it gives people more chances to research their options, save money, and to access support that might otherwise be out of reach, right?

While there are certainly some advantages to democratizing medical supply access – for example, premium OTC hearing aids are often much more affordable than prescription hearing aids – there are also significant risks to this shift. Widespread access to OTC devices, medications, and other supports need to be coupled with a strong oversight system, and that aspect is still missing.

OTC Drug Dangers

In order to understand the potential risks of general medical supply access, it is helpful to look at a well-known niche: OTC drugs. 

Everyone purchases some OTC medications, from allergy and cold treatments to antacids and pain relievers. In fact, when you walk into your local pharmacy, there are rows of these products, all of which have passed through the FDA and been declared safe for home use without a doctor’s oversight. There are, however, always risks to OTC medication use, such as medication duplication, when an individual takes two OTC drugs with the same active ingredient and thereby risks an overdose. Such risks are why patients are expected to use caution and consult their doctors, even when using OTC medications, but there is no way to guarantee such checks and balances.

Another challenge we see with OTC medications is recalls. People often purchase OTC drugs, use them a few times, and stick them in the cabinet until they need them again. If, in the interim, that drug is recalled, as recently occurred with Zantac and its generic version, ranitidine, patients may never hear about it and their doctor likely has no record that they may have used it, leaving patients at risk. There is limited ability to ensure that patients discontinue dangerous OTC drugs or to help them pursue litigation against the pharmaceutical manufacturer because they may never learn about the dangers at hand.

Uninformed Use

Another problem with easy access to medical devices and supports is that they may be improperly used or used without the appropriate background knowledge, and pulse oximeters are a good example of this issue. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s unpredictable impact on blood oxygen saturation – patients with the virus regularly present with lower sats than their outward state would suggest – many doctors and public health authorities have recommended that everyone have a pulse oximeter at home. And while pulse oximeters are a useful tool and fundamentally harmless, they can easily be misused or misinterpreted by lay individuals. 

What can go wrong with a pulse oximeter? These devices work by measuring how light bounces back off of blood cells, but they may not be accurate if the user is wearing nail polish or when used by individuals with darker skin. However, many home users only know how to interpret the number on the devices screen, not how to ensure measurements are accurate in the first place, and this can put undue strain on the medical system, especially if misuse leads to low readings.

Lack Of Medical Literacy A Common Concern

Whether patients are taking antihistamines to treat their allergies or looking to relieve pain from a sprained ankle, a lack of medical literacy consistently presents a risk. That’s why patients should always use medications and health-related tools in conjunction with physician oversight. Failure to do so can lead to more harm than good.