AFTER food and drink, medications top the list of necessities for many people, especially as they get older and health problems start popping up. These days there are medications for almost anything, but the cost of effective treatments can be a burden, especially if they have to be taken every day.
Most doctors will prescribe generic drugs if asked, but many new and effective treatments are not available in generic form, and they are likely to be expensive.
An alternative plan is to find a reliable, well-stocked drug store with quality medications that are not overpriced. But this is not always easy, despite the large number of pharmacies in Bangkok.
In a recent survey conducted by the The BigChilli of 40 Bangkok pharmacies at hospitals, shopping malls and on the street, many didn’t have particular medicines or were low on stocks of them. Some tried to sell medicines said to be “similar” to those requested because they didn’t stock them; others would sell only the whole package of medicines rather than individual strips.
But most importantly, there was a huge difference in prices from store to store. Most pharmacies don’t have price tags on the medicines, meaning they can ask whatever they want, or think they can get.
One of the best Bangkok pharmacies in terms of efficiency and price identified by our survey is Chula Bhesaj, located on Rama IV Road between Silom and Surawong roads. Busy around the clock, this family-run store has built up a big following amongst locals and foreigners since opening in 1988.
In charge is Mrs Purita ‘May’ Metawattanakarn, an American-educated Thai, who explains the store’s name: “Chula because it is located opposite Chulalongkorn Hospital, and ‘bhesaj’ means pharmacist in Thai.
“Our staff includes four family members who look after customers and stock. Three of sales people can speak English. We have four pharmacists. One of them is my older sister.
“I am not a pharmacist but I underwent medical training in some specific areas. Most of the companies we buy from, including the ones making vitamins, assist in training our staff as well,” said May. “We have a large stock and variety of medicines. Everything is computerized, so we can get details to the customer immediately.
“The companies we buy from either manufacture here or import from abroad, like GlaxoSmithKline and Diethelm. We don’t import directly ourselves, so I don’t know how much must be paid for imported medicines. The companies pay the import taxes,” May explained.
“Companies come to us and show us what they have, and I decide what to order. All the medicines they offer have already been approved by the Thai Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, as for supplement or diet medicines, they have to be checked for FDA approval.
“Around 60% of our customers are private individuals. They may buy several months’ supply of medicines. We also sell medicines and other items to businesses, clinics, including many beauty clinics, and major private hospitals in Bangkok. If they don’t have enough medicines in stock they will come and buy here. This applies to clinics as well. We also sell to hotels,” she said.
“More than half our sales are medicines for chronic illnesses, meaning medicines that the patient needs to take continuously for conditions like heart disease, Alzheimer’s and so on. Around 20% of sales are for supplements like vitamins, fish oil and minerals. The rest is medical instruments – wheel chairs, suction tubes, items to dress wounds and so forth.
Why do first class Bangkok hospitals purchase medicines from Chula Bhesaj? “Maybe they come to us because we are close to them or because they can’t find what they need elsewhere. Like other customers, they know we have everything and always in stock. Often they will send a courier on motorcycle to our shop to collect medicines.
“They also come to us because we have lower prices and because we have the latest medications.”
May explained that it is common for people to come see a pharmacist first because they don’t want to pay for a doctor’s consultation. “When someone walks in and says they are sick and want some medicine, I will tell them to consult one of our pharmacists. We give them some medicine and tell them if they don’t feel better in a couple days to go see a doctor.”
“We don’t care so much about profit. We care about the customers and we want to give them good service. We care about the quality of the medications we sell and we don’t cheat customers.”
Some Bangkok pharmacies, including two big foreign franchises on Silom Road, sell exactly the same medicines for two or three times more than Chula Bhesaj.
Although May didn’t want to go on record as saying that Chula Bhesaj is the cheapest pharmacy in Thailand, she was willing to state that 100% of medicines sold there are approved by the FDA and the store does everything it can to assure their quality.
Perhaps the only drawback to Chula Bhesaj is that it doesn’t have a proper parking area. Customers who park on the street are sometimes, but not always, fined by the police.