Talking to a Pharmacist

May 6, 2002

Pharmacies in Thailand give out many medications that one would need a prescription for elsewhere. To name but a few, antibiotics, birth control, asthma inhalers, heart medication, and antidepressants are all available over the counter.

Medications are notoriously cheaper in Thailand than in many other countries and visitors can be found stocking up on their prescription drugs when they pass through. For example, the same asthma inhaler that would cost US$37 in the United States can be had for a mere US$5 here. Many other medications are available as Thai-produced generics meaning that a well-known brand name drug is sold under a different name.

Every major block seems to have a pharmacy or five. They range from the small to the immense and from the chaotic to the super-messy. Most pharmacies have a scale that customers can use free of charge.

Not all medications are available over the counter, however. There are controlled substance drugs in Thailand and prescriptions are needed before certain pills will be dispensed.

Pharmacists also give doctor-like diagnosis to those coming in asking for assistance. If you show up with a small cough, a bottle of codeine cough syrup and a box of antibiotics is more than likely to be placed in front of you.

Thailand’s pharmacies, hospital and doctors all tend to over-prescribe. Something worth noting is that pharmacies have cross-reference books available in English. It is well worth doing some reading in them before deciding to purchase an unfamiliar medication. I once went to a pharmacy complaining of nausea and was offered medication used to treat epilepsy.

Suphawon Virotesiri is a 33-year-old woman who runs her own pharmacy in my neighbourhood. She studied at university for five years in southern Thailand to become a pharmacist and upon graduating got a full-time job at a government hospital in her field and made 7,000 baht (US$159) a month. She studies English at school and can speak it quite well.

She has been married for nine years and is has a four-year-old daughter who is very often at the store with her mother when she is not attending school. Suphawon moved from southern Thailand to Bangkok after getting married. “I got a job at a private hospital as a pharmacist and was paid 17,000 baht (US$377) a month. I worked there for six months. Then I became a sales representative for an international pharmaceutical company. I could earn 35,000-40,000 (US$777-889) baht per month. I got to go to Europe with the company two times,” she said. She also opened a small dry cleaning business next to her pharmacy six months ago. “Business is not going good or bad,” she stated.

She opened her medium-sized pharmacy two years ago after moving the business from a location about fifteen minutes down the street. Her present store is in a good location and is well stocked and well kept.

“This store makes about the same amount of money as my old store did. I pay 7,500 baht (US$167) a month in rent and 5,000 baht (US$11) a month for electricity. I let the restaurant next store use my electricity meter and bill them, so actually my electricity bill is 3-4,000 baht a month because I use the air conditioner,” she explained.

She did not want to state specifically how much her present business earns per month, but informed me that it was over 20,000 baht (US$444). Suphawon employs a shop assistant and she is paid 4,800 baht (US$107) per month.

Suphawon works from 10 am-8 pm Monday through Friday. Her husband works full time as an engineer for Thai Airways. “On the weekends I take care of my family and do the shopping. I have a maid to help me during the week.” She lives in a three-bedroom house with her mother-in-law and daughter that she and her husband own.

When asked what she likes to do for fun, she replied, “I watch TV. I like to rent video CDs. I like Hollywood movies. I also like shopping for clothes, shopping for everything actually. I like to travel. In Thailand I enjoy going to Phuket and Chiang Mai.”

If hypothetically given 5,000 baht, Suphawon said she would spend it. “I would go shopping and buy things for my daughter, things for myself and a little bit of stuff for my husband,” she declared with a smile.

She is content with her job and said, “I like to sell things. Anything!” She is a clever, energetic and highly motivated businesswoman who is doing well for herself and her family. When asked what the most popular products in her store were, she giggled and said, “Birth control and Tylenol but I make the most profit by selling diet supplements and vitamins.”

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