/ Health

Our undercover health check for pharmacies

A pharmacy mystery shopper

When you’re unwell, you need safe, reliable advice to help you buy the right medicine. We sent mystery shoppers into UK pharmacies to give their advice a check up. Can you rely on your local pharmacy?

Last week, I went to my local independent pharmacy and asked the assistant a question about how I use my asthma inhaler. But the advice didn’t sound right, so I very politely asked if she might check with the pharmacist, and a different answer came back.

That’s just one tiny example of the sort of problem we found in our large, undercover investigation of 122 pharmacies throughout the UK. This is our third pharmacies investigation in a decade and my experience clearly reflects some of our findings.

Our trained mystery shoppers visited the large chain pharmacies – Boots, Superdrug, the Co-operative, Lloyds, Rowlands and four major supermarkets (Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco). The shoppers also visited smaller chains and independents, which still make up over half of the market.

Uncovering ailing advice

Their visits were rated by a panel of three experienced pharmacists, and more than four in 10 visits were found to be unsatisfactory.

In one scenario, our mystery shoppers asked to buy Pantoloc Control for heartburn, but seven out of 10 pharmacy staff failed to ask vital questions before selling this strong drug. If the questions had been asked, the staff members would have found that the mystery shopper is on warfarin to prevent blood clots. Pantoloc can interfere with warfarin levels, leading to potentially serious problems.

Independent pharmacies and smaller chains gave worse advice overall than leading chains and supermarkets (58% vs 34% giving unsatisfactory advice). The counter assistants who dealt with our mystery shoppers without consulting the pharmacist were significantly more likely to give poor advice than pharmacists (67% compared to 27%).

We did find some green shoots of hope, however. We saw some improvement for two scenarios that we also used in our 2008 investigation – one asking for medicine to treat traveller’s diarrhoea and another for migraine medication.

Helping pharmacies get better

The next step is to ask why we’re seeing trends across the years – our last investigations in 2004 and 2008 saw similar issues with assistants not involving pharmacists and important questions being missed, as well as independent stores under performing when compared to chains.

But we’re pleased that the new regulator, the General Pharmaceutical Council, and the professional body for pharmacies, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, are taking our findings seriously. They are planning a joint event in the summer to discuss these issues with companies, training providers and medicine manufacturers.

I think your neighbourhood pharmacy – whether it’s a small independent or part of a big chain – is a place you should be able to get safe and reliable advice. Our investigation has found worrying variations in the quality of this advice.

This all leads to me wonder if my experience at my local pharmacy was just a one-off. Have you received bad advice, or are you receiving the good advice and service we saw in some pharmacies?


It doesn’t occur to me to ask a pharmacy for medical advice – I’d use my GP or practice nurse – they know your history. Isn’t that what they are meant to be there for?

Stuart says:
20 May 2013

If you’re after medical advice then fair enough. If you’re after advice on medicines though, then you’re better off with a pharmacist. They are more accessible and you don’t need an appointment. They’ve even easier to phone than your doctor/practice nurse. Most pharmacists will be able to answer any medicines related query from the information you can provide, but if there is doubt due to not knowing your history then they can refer to your GP. This saves you’re GP time and will also probably make your life easier.


It would help if people also volunteered any information about their medical history. Then there would be a “belts & braces” approach to patient safety, with the patient playing an important role in it too.


Counter assistants in pharmacies are not trained to give advise on medicines and it would be foolhardy to ask and rely on that advise. Many over the counter products are sold in our supermarkets and you would not expect the supermarket staff to advise you on their use.

I have in the past asked a pharmacist for advise and was asked about medical conditions and what medication I was taking. I would expect that advise to be sound and if s/he had any doubts they should tell me to contact my GP.

Paul says:
20 May 2013

Any vounter staff with a responsibility for selling medicines in a pharmacy MUST undertake a nationally recognised Medicines Counter Assistants course. This is in stark contrast to a supermarket for example where only staff working in the defined pharmacy area are required to do this.


Paul: How long is the course and how detailed.

I see customers asking counter staff for advise all the time and the staff just seem to read out details from the packaging.

Karen says:
20 May 2013

The medicine counter assistant course takes around 2 years to complete and covers majority of common problems treated with over the counter medicines. It also sets out a range of questions which MUST be asked when selling any over the counter medication, such as what other medication is being taken etc. If anyone is not doing this then they are not doing what they should be and this should possibly be mentioned to the Pharmacist in charge.


Hi Figgerty
Thanks for your input.
Just to say that two of our scenarios (used by our mystery-shoppers) were for medicines where pharmacists are required as a condition of sale to oversee the sale. So if a counter assistant is – understandably – not sure – they should surely be asking the pharmacist to advise?