December 9, 2022

Why are GPs spending £1m a year on paracetamol prescriptions?

In the time it took you to read this sentence, GPs in the north of Scotland will have prescribed you the equivalent of a packet of paracetamol.

Over the next 24 hours they will distribute 133,000 narcotic tablets.

And over the past year, those prescriptions in Grampian, the Highlands and the Islands have cost more than £1.1million.

But with 16 packs of paracetamol available in shops for as little as 29 pence at a time, why are GPs prescribing so many?

How many people are prescribed paracetamol?

Paracetamol is the second most commonly prescribed drug by GPs in the region.

On average, 26,000 prescriptions for 500mg tablets are filled each month.

The single most popular medication is omeprazole, which helps control chronic heartburn.

But, taking into account other types of painkillers, the number skyrockets.

Data for the north and northeast from June 2022 shows:

capsules: 1,039 prescriptions, £6,819.72

Oral suspension: 1,899 prescriptions, £31,326.52

suppositories: 2,959 prescriptions, £38,400.49

Tablets: 25,179 prescriptions, £100,478.80

Why are paracetamol prescriptions so expensive?

Looking again at June, a total of 24,536 prescriptions for paracetamol 500mg tablets were filled in Grampian, Highland and the Islands.

The total cost was just under £94,000.

However, when broken down by tablet, that works out to around 0.4p each.

All prescriptions in the region in that month cost £15.6m, with paracetamol tablets accounting for just 0.6% of that spend.

Infographic showing the cost of paracetamol prescriptions compared to all drugs in June 2022

But this does not mean that they are exempt from possible cost reductions.

Some GP clinics have advised patients not to ask their doctor for paracetamol and to buy it themselves instead.

Others advise lifestyle changes to help reduce drug dependency.

It can improve patient health and save the NHS money at the same time.

Why is paracetamol prescribed?

For some people with chronic pain or arthritis, they need paracetamol regularly to help manage their health.

Although tablets can be picked up at the store, this is not always convenient for patients.

If someone needs the full dose of eight tablets a day, that means a pack of 16 will only last 48 hours.

GP Emma Windle explains that, for some, paracetamol prescriptions (and the associated cost) are a necessity.  Photo by Scott Baxter
General practitioner Emma Windle explains that, for some, paracetamol prescriptions are a necessity. Photo by Scott Baxter

Aberdeen GP Emma Windle, who helps run the Aberdeen Wellness Festival, explains: ‘There is a limit to how much paracetamol people can buy over the counter.

“Even buying the two packs you are allowed to buy at once, you would still only have a four day supply.

“Often these patients find it difficult to get around and going to the store every four days is not manageable.”

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