Pharmacies Must Put Corporate Interests Aside to Give Flu Shots

October is just around the corner. Leaves will soon be turning magnificent colours. Pumpkin Spice treats will flow in abundance from many cafe’s. Plans to have a safe Halloween will be afoot. And – the inevitable cry of “when can I get my flu shot?” will be increasingly heard at many physicians offices.

Last year, there was a significant rise in the number of people who got a flu shot. While our flu season was mild last year (likely because of a combination of all the social distancing/mask measures and the higher vaccination rates) – there is concern this season may be more severe. In order to minimize the severity of this years flu season, we need to continue the trend of more people getting flu shots.

But last year was also the year that there was a lot of confusion around flu shots, and the year that the increasing commercialization of flu shots by the corporate head offices of pharmaceutical chains raised big concerns for me.

First, the timing of the flu shot is always going to be key. As I wrote last year, the best time for most of us to get flu shots is in November. The trend for the last few years (see picture below) is for flu season to begin sometime in December and taper off in March.

Thank you Ottawa Public Health for this excellent graph

BUT, the flu shot only starts to work two weeks after you get it, and its effectiveness starts to wear off after a couple of months. Timing is everything with the flu shot, and getting the shot in October is (for most of us) a bad choice. The shot will wear off before flu season is over.

Yet last year, my radio station/twitter feed/even Facebook page had numerous ads from Pharmacies advertising flu shot clinics in October (and buy your groceries at the same time!). This appeared to be driven by a desire to get a “customer” in the store soon rather than what was best from a health perspective (i.e. wait till November).

Additionally, there was all sorts of confusion around the high dose vs the standard dose flu shot last year. I wrote about this last year too. At the end of the day it does not matter which flu shot you get. Just get one! The effective difference between the high dose trivalent (three strain) flu shot and the regular dose three strain flu shot was 0.5%. This difference does not merit the hype around the high dose shot.

Furthermore, in Ontario we had a quadrivalent (four strain) regular strength flu shot. There was no study comparing the high dose three strain vs regular dose four strain shot that I could find. So really, there was no justification for the advertising from pharmacy ads that essentially said “high dose flu shots in stock, come quickly before we run out.”

This year, the choice of flu shots is going to be even more complicated. Have a look at a screen shot of an email I got from my local public health unit:

Six (!) different brands of flu shots covering a variety of strains (3 vs 4) and dosage strengths (high vs low). But again, to be clear, the difference between these are likely minimal. What’s far more important is that people actually get the shot (in November) rather than pick and choose and wait for one.

Yet if history repeats itself (and it seemingly always does), we can once again expect pharmaceutical chains advertising early in October that they have a “high dose” or “extra strength” or “added potency” or whatever shot, but you must book now! Hurry! Before they are all gone! And if you come real soon, you can even get 500 bonus points!

This level of consumer hucksterism has no place in health care. Health care decisions should be made based on evidence, appropriately done studies, and what’s in the best interests of the patient and society. They should not be made based on some marketing guru’s attempts to get people into a store (where conveniently they can get their milk and eggs too).

Most pharmacists I know are good and decent people who want to do what’s best for their patients. I actually applaud their willingness to give flu shots. The easier we can make it for everyone in society to get a flu shot, the better it is for all of us, and the less potential strain there will be on our health care system this winter.

But the corporate head offices that come up with these schemes (seriously, bonus points for get a flu shot??) need to think of what’s best for the health care needs of society first. That means NOT giving flu shots until November and NOT trying to promote one flu vaccine over another in an effort to create perceived demand and drive people to their stores.

Let’s see see if they act in the best interests of society, or in the best interests of their shareholders wallets this year.

Author: justanoldcountrydoctor

Practicing rural family medicine since 1992. I still have active privileges at the Collingwood Hospital. Immediate Past-President of the Ontario Medical Association.

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