The prospect of Swiss supermarket retailer Migros moving into the sale of prescription medication has provoked a flurry of concern from retail groups.
Migros surprised retailers and pharmacists with the announcement that it had gone into partnership with mail order drugs company Zur Rose to run a pilot project in one of its supermarkets.
The new service works in the same way as Migros' film processing service. Customers leave their prescriptions in an in-store post box and can return 48 hours later to pick up the medication.
The no-frills service is cheaper for the consumer and the insurance company picking up the tab but pharmacists have raised objections, saying the patients' safety could be compromised.
The service is available in one supermarket in Lenzburg, north-central Switzerland, for an initial six-month period.
Marcel Wyler, spokesman for the Swiss Pharmacists Association, says the new practice raises many questions and needs to be closely studied. The association represents 1,350 Swiss pharmacies.
"Our concerns are basically about patient security. Our members try to meet really high standards and if there is a development that undermines these standards, it is of great concern to us," he told swissinfo.
The pharmacists association emphasises that prescription drugs are not ordinary consumer goods. "Those who need medication immediately and who wish to receive advice from their pharmacist are better served by their trusted pharmacy."
The Swiss Retailers Association has also objected to Migros' move into medication distribution, saying that it is a threat to the existing network of small retailers and may cause social and economic damage.
Companies providing medication by mail order have already been in existence for some time but Wyler says the involvement of a new player in between the customer or doctor and the supplier could mark a fundamental change.
Kurt Eberle of Zur Rose disagrees. "All we're doing in Migros is using a post box in-store and this doesn't require special permission," he explained.
Initially, the health department in canton Aargau, where the Migros store is located, said it was looking into the question of permits for the new venture.
This week, the cantonal legal authorities said the sale of prescription medication through the Migros store was "legally permissible", as the retailer was only operating as a post box and delivery point.
A Migros spokesman, Thomas Bornhauser, said the idea for the pilot project had come from Zur Rosa. "We don't know if it's going to work – if we're too early or too late, or if there's no customer demand."
"It's a new idea and we said 'why not?' One of the main concerns Swiss people have is the cost of insurance and health care and this just might be an opportunity to reduce costs in this area."
Zur Rose has a range of 6,500 medications available in its warehouses and distributes by post nationwide.
At the end of the pilot project in six months, Migros will decide on its viability. If the company is happy with the results, the service could potentially be offered throughout Switzerland.
The drugs distribution pilot project is being run by Migros Aare, the biggest of the ten cooperatives within the Migros retailing group.
The new service allows customers to leave their prescriptions in an in-store post box and to collect their medication two days later.
Migros is working in partnership with the mail order drugs distributor Zur Rose and will review the trial in six months.
Recently Migros has been moving into new sales areas, launching its mobile phone package in September 2005.
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