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Canada Could Save Over a Billion by Switching Some Medications from Prescriptions to Over-The-Counter

Ottawa, March 9, 2017—A new Conference Board of Canada report estimates that switching three prescription drug classes to over-the-counter (OTC) medications could represent a cost savings of $1.0 billion annually for Canadians, Canada’s health care system, insurance providers, and employers combined.

“Removing the need to obtain a prescription from a physician for select medications can help improve access for some Canadians through greater convenience and at a lesser cost,” said Louis Thériault, Vice-President, Public Policy, The Conference Board of Canada. “It also alleviates some of the pressure on Canada’s strained health care system by decreasing the number of unnecessary doctor visits.”


  • The economic gains of switching three drug classes totalled $1.0 billion annually.
  • The greatest savings would stem from lower drug costs, reduced physician visits, and increased economic productivity.
  • While switching would result in savings for public and private insurers, employers and individuals with poor or no prescription drug coverage, Canadians currently under a drug plan would incur additional costs.

The report, Value of Consumer Health Products: The Impact of Switching Prescription Medications to Over-the-Counter, examines the economic impact of switching three specific drug categories; proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), oral contraceptives (OCs) and drugs for erectile dysfunction (ED). It focuses on health care system efficiency and employer productivity from avoided primary care visits and investigates changes to the cost burden of paying for medicines from the perspective of public and private drug plans, and individuals.

Overall, the annual economic value of switching is estimated at $709.9 million for proton pump inhibitors to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease, $222.2 million for oral contraceptives and $106.2 million for erectile dysfunction drugs, totalling $1.0 billion in savings. The greatest savings would stem from lower drug costs, approximately $458.4 million. While reduced physician visits and increased economic productivity would save $290.2 million and $289.8 million respectively.

Public insurers stand to gain the most from the switches, followed by employers and private drug plan sponsors. Individuals who currently do not have access to the best prescription drug coverage would also see significant savings, due to the lower cost of over-the-counter medications and removal of dispensing fees. On the other hand, individuals currently covered under a drug plan with low or no deductibles and co-payments would incur additional costs from having to purchase the medication over the counter.

The report, in addition to identifying the economic benefits of switching, also discusses some of the risks of switching, such as misdiagnosis, misuse, and adverse events, all of which are reviewed by Health Canada before approving individual medication switches.

Value of Consumer Health Products: The Impact of Switching Prescription Medications to Over-the-Counter is the first report in a two-part series, which aims to model the economic impact of switching three specific drug categories. The report is funded by Consumer Health Products Canada and is publicly available from our e-Library.

This along with other related topics will be the focus of The Conference Board’s Healthy Canada Conference 2017: Access to Affordable Medicines on April 26-27 in Toronto.

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