Privacy in Purchasing: New Options for Women Shopping for Personal Care Products

Privacy in Purchasing

How many women have made the dreaded trip to the drug store to purchase some personal product like tampons, birth control, a pregnancy test -- only to run into a friend, a co-worker or, worse, a drug store clerk who screams for a price check for the condoms the woman wants to buy?

The fact that women's most private of products are sold in the most public of places seems strangely contradictory. Particularly strange when you consider that, very often, retail drug stores stock women's personal products behind the pharmacy counter -- forcing women to ask the pharmacist or clerk for them.

"Why Mary, who are you buying those for?"

The need for privacy in purchasing personal products spans a wide range of ages in women, from the young woman who must purchase a yeast infection medication to the adult woman suffering from incontinence who must buy adult diapers. The public nature of the retail drug store does not always provide the best environment to shop for these items with dignity.

Aside from the feelings of embarrassment or discomfort expressed by some women when shopping for personal products, there are often more significant consequences. Many women say that they've chosen not to consult with the pharmacist about a personal product or prescription because there were too many other people around the pharmacy counter who might overhear. Additionally, some younger women admit that they have chosen not to purchase over-the-counter contraceptives from retail drug stores because they did not want to run the risk of someone recognizing them while making the purchase.

In regions of the country where women have limited access to health care providers, the local pharmacist serves as a primary source of health information. When a fear of a lack of privacy obstructs this channel of access, women's health stands to suffer.

Over the past few years, a few retail drug store chains have apparently taken note of some of these issues and have made strides towards improving the layouts of their stores. Within some chains, the pharmacy counter includes a private consultation area in which the pharmacist can speak privately with the patient. Certain states have gone further to improve the situation by mandating pharmacist/patient consultations when dispensing prescription drugs. The pharmacist must inform the patient of the correct way to take the medication and warn her/him of possible drug and food interactions.

The right level of privacy still evades many shoppers

Despite these steps towards improvement, a visit to the majority of retail drug stores reveals that they still have a long way to go in providing the privacy needed in purchasing. Fortunately for consumers, there are new options for purchasing prescription and some over-the-counter products. Unfortunately, very few consumers know about them.

A mail service pharmacy is one such option that is relatively under-used by the general public. Though these pharmacies have been in existence for many years in the U.S., they did not receive a great deal of recognition until the Merck acquisition of Medco approximately two years ago. Mail service pharmacies employ licensed pharmacists and can legally ship prescription medications to any state within the USA. Because the mail service pharmacies have limited overhead and concentrate on filling thousands of prescriptions each day, they are able to compete with the retail pharmacies in terms of price and the convenience of home delivery.

To date, the primary users of mail service pharmacies have been seniors taking maintenance medications who may be physically unable to make a trip to the retail drug store. By simply mailing in their original prescriptions and calling in for subsequent refills, the mail service pharmacy provides the senior with an excellent means of access to their medications.

In addition to seniors, other users of mail service pharmacies include individuals who have an insurance policy that requires them to purchase all prescriptions from a mail service pharmacy. However, if an individual happens to be on a medication not covered by her/his insurance plan, she/he may have never heard of mail service pharmacies as an option.

A perfect example of this lack of awareness is found in the case of women who take oral contraceptives. A recent study by The Alan Guttmacher Institute revealed that nearly 70% of indemnity insurance plans do not cover the cost of oral contraceptives. Thus, it is no surprise that many women do not know that mail service pharmacies are an option for them.

Enhanced responsiveness to women's needs

Mail service pharmacies offer numerous advantages. Most such pharmacies can fill virtually any prescription for women (or men), regardless of their HMO or insurance plan. A woman can ask to speak with a pharmacist directly if she should have any questions at any time about her medications. Most importantly, she can request to speak with a female pharmacist if one is available and she can do so with the privacy of a phone call. Finally, mail service pharmacies provide a level of convenience and the much needed privacy often lacking. With a simple phone call, women can have prescription medications and some over-the-counter products shipped directly to their homes.

Although the majority of mail service pharmacies do not currently offer the complete range of women's personal products, a few have begun to expand in this direction. With time, women will find a full selection of products that can be purchased both privately and conveniently from home. Perhaps the trend toward more home shopping and a demand for improved levels of privacy in purchasing will prompt the retail drug stores to rethink their own services. If not, women can at least take heart in the fact that they now have the option of purchasing their personal products through new, customer-oriented mail service pharmacies.

Editor's addendum: Speaking from a male perspective, I can tell you that men, too, often find it uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing purchasing condoms and other personal items in drug stores. I don't think women have a corner on the embarrassment market. On the other hand, basic physiological differences between the sexes mean that women, more often than men, will have to reach for personal items on drug store or supermarket shelves. No person should have to be embarrassed taking care of her or his personal needs or addressing personal health issues. And when embarrassment potentially interferes with one's proper health care or self-care, then it's time to take a good, long look at our existing system and see where and how positive changes can be made.

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