The cash-strapped health service spent more than £ 2million on paracetamol prescriptions last year.
he huge sum could have been used to finance 295 hip replacements, 7,355 outpatient appointments or pay the salaries of 63 nurses.
It also represents just under two-thirds of the annual running costs of the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice.
In total, the NHS has paid more than £ 5.1million in prescriptions for the pain reliever – which can be bought at the supermarket for 29 pence – over the past three years.
It can also be revealed that £ 621,650 of prescriptions for ibuprofen were dispensed in Northern Ireland in 2020.
The money used to pay for the 167,794 ibuprofen items would have covered the cost of 3,790 exam appointments, 565 cataract operations or 212 IVF cycles.
In total, the NHS has paid more than £ 5.1million on paracetamol prescriptions over the past three years and an additional £ 1.94million on ibuprofen prescriptions between 2018 and 2020.
The figures, released by the Department of Health, highlight a shocking burden placed on the NHS at a time when funding and manpower are stretched to the limit.
A can of paracetamol can be bought at the supermarket for 29 pence, while ibuprofen costs only 39 pence.
General practitioner Dr Michael McKenna said his office was inundated with requests for prescriptions for over-the-counter drugs.
“We get people asking for prescriptions for athlete’s foot and hay fever,” he said.
“I would say that a quarter of the phone calls we get are from patients requesting a prescription for over-the-counter drugs.
“There’s an argument that GPs should say no, but then that’s more time spent on the phone when we’re already so busy.”
Dr Alan Stout, Chairman of the General Practitioners Committee of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland, said: “There is a cost to the service as a whole.
“For each prescription, there is a consultation or contact with the general practitioner’s office, then there is the time spent generating the prescription, the time spent in the pharmacy, the cost of dispensing, the actual cost of the drug. is only a small part of it.
“It has an impact on the health services, but it is not something that can be dealt with by general medicine, it is something that must be dealt with at the political level by the ministry of health.
“There is, of course, a reluctance to impose a blanket ban on over-the-counter prescription products, as it could lead to health inequalities.
“There will always be people who can’t afford paracetamol and no one wants patients to go without it, but there is certainly an argument that over-the-counter products should be available for free from pharmacists or even. supermarkets, which would help reduce the overall burden on service. “
The figures have come to light as the health service faces a significant budget deficit, with people with cancer, palliative care patients and couples struggling to start families among those who could suffer the consequences.
In February, the finance director of the Ministry of Health warned that the draft budget would lead to “patient disappointment and the finding that their needs are not being met”.
Meanwhile, healthcare workers are still waiting for a pay raise offer from the Department of Health.
NHS workers here are the only staff in the UK who have yet to receive an offer, raising concerns that officials do not have sufficient funds to match the 3% on offer in England and Wales .
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said well-established guidelines were in place for medical professionals and members of the public regarding the promotion of self-care for minor ailments and auto-sickness. -limiting.
“Health care prescribers are advised not to prescribe drugs that can be purchased over the counter by patients when they are used to treat minor ailments or self-limiting illnesses, or when there is no no factual basis for their use, ”she continued. .
“This is particularly relevant when it comes to the prescription of paracetamol and ibuprofen.
“At all times, the prescriber must use clinical judgment in determining whether a drug should be prescribed to a patient or whether it is considered more appropriate to ask a patient to purchase their drug.
“The guidelines specifically recommend, for example, that paracetamol not be prescribed in circumstances such as headaches or teething in babies.
“However, it may be necessary to prescribe regular full-dose paracetamol or ibuprofen for chronic pain due to the amounts and processes involved in managing ongoing or long-term disease.”