OTC Products Are Accessible When Traditional Health Care Delivery Is Not


COVID-19 permanently changed how pharmacists recommend and sell nonprescription options.

Starting that fateful week in March 2020 when everyone’s life changed, health care settings closed their doors en masse.

From primary care to ambulatory surgery, physical therapy to massage therapy, nearly every setting of care suspended operations, except for emergency departments connected to hospitals and pharmacies. Yes, pharmacies. More than 60,000 remained open to patients, and most pharmacists continued their role as a source for OTC products and the free-of-charge counseling that often goes with them.

Ensuring Access to Medications

Telemedicine grew at an unprecedented rate starting in April 2020, but it did not entirely fill the health care void. Individuals needing acute medications, dose adjustments, or treatment for chronic diseases lost direct access to practitioners, but pharmacies remaining open meant patients could still receive their lifesaving medications. Of course, foot traffic slowed, and the flu was practically nonexistent in 2020, but hundreds of millions of Americans had access to basic triage, care delivery, medications, and testing supplies.

Cornerstone of Health Care

More than 80% of adults use OTC products as first-line treatment for common ailments. With Americans making approximately 3 billion trips to purchase OTC products annually and 60 million Americans using them who would otherwise not seek treatment, patient access to these products is essential to a well-functioning health care system. It is inconceivable these days to schedule an office visit, procure a prescription, and have it adjudicated by insurance just to get ibuprofen for an ankle sprain. A prescription for loratadine? Laughable. Yet less than 2 decades ago, nonsedating antihistamines were deemed too unsafe to be sold over the counter.

Self-Care Does Not Mean Lack of Care

Making products available without a prescription does not have to mean patients go without care. Pharmacists and other health care professionals can counsel patients on all types of accessible and affordable OTC products. Does an Apple Watch’s electrocardiograph or pulse oximetry app keep patients from seeing their cardiologists? Do pregnancy tests keep women from visiting their gynecologists? Do wetting drops prevent patients from going to their ophthalmologists?

Do niacin or omega oils keep patients from getting their cholesterol checked? The answer to all these questions is no. Pharmacists have multiple encounters with patients every day, and most are just as meaningful to a patient’s care as billable encounters.

Expanding Access Through OTCs and Testing

COVID-19 self-administered testing is approved and available. Health plans have picked up on the power of patient convenience. Waning resistance against self-empowerment, which the pandemic necessitated, has enlisted a host of home-based diagnostics providing accessible and affordable screening and rescreening directly to health plan members—without a prescription. Need to improve A1c testing and reporting? Why not look to pharmacies or even send the tests directly to patients’ residences?

Postpandemic Self-Care and OTC Product Use

We are only a summer away from what will likely be the first widely prevalent cough and cold season of asthma flare ups, influenza, middle-ear infections, and rhinovirus in nearly 2 years. As social distancing and masking disappear, we will again share microbes. Disease surveillance and patient care will still have a prime spot in the consciousness of the frontline pharmacist’s mind in all seasons. Education, triage, testing, and counseling have a greater meaning and purpose than ever before, and much of this purpose is enabled by access to OTC products.

We hope you enjoy the 2021 OTC Guide®!

Click here to view the OTC products that pharmacists recommend the most to their patients.

Troy Trygstad, PharmD, PhD, MBA, is vice president of pharmacy provider partnerships for Community Care of North Carolina, which works collaboratively with more than 2000 medical practices to serve more than 1.6 million Medicaid, Medicare, commercially insured, and uninsured patients. He received his PharmD and MBA degrees from Drake University and a PhD in pharmaceutical outcomes and policy from the University of North Carolina. He also serves on the board of directors of the American Pharmacists Association Foundation and the Pharmacy Quality Alliance.


OTC use statistics. Consumer Healthcare Products Association. Accessed May 24, 2021. https://www.chpa.org/about-consumer-healthcare/research-data/otc-use-statistics.

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