French pharmacies are awe-inspiring places filled with enough colorful little packages to keep your eyes busy until it’s your turn to speak to the pharmacist. The French pharmacy is a place you’ll visit often for OTC and prescription medicines, advice and sometimes just to say hi to your pharmacist. Your pharmacist not only knows your dog’s name but actually allows your dog to accompany you into the pharmacy.
But are French pharmacies really all that different?
Let’s see as we discover my list of differences between pharmacies in France and the United States.
On pharmacies in France
Pharmacies in France are awesome and I mean that in the literal sense of the word. I love wine and cheese and all kinds of things in France, but as silly as it sounds, the pharmacy ranks right up there too. Maybe it’s because I love the prices or the service or maybe all the interesting products just dazzle me. Or maybe my pharmacist is just really nice (not this embarrassing guy though).
But before you set out to discover your French pharmacy, keep in mind this list of differences between pharmacies in France and the U.S. that I’ve observed. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be:
1. French pharmacies are really just about the medicines and personal care products. No fluff.
In the U.S., we commonly say we’re running to the pharmacy to get a few things like toilet paper, some Gatorade and maybe some gum. But you wouldn’t find any of these in French pharmacies, which are smaller than U.S. chain drug stores and carry just medicines and personal products. There’s no greeting card section or kids’ toys or candy. Just the meds. There are pharmacies that include a parapharmacie section (or places that are just parapharmacies and don’t have any prescription medications) and that includes skin care products like makeup and sunscreen and other non-rx items (but never gum and drinks and magazines, etc.).
2. No long wait times at pharmacies in France to “fill” your prescription. In fact there’s no verb equivalent of “filling” a prescription.
In France, you pop in to the pharmacy with your prescription, hand it to the pharmacist or tech and in just a few seconds they return with your box of medication. The exception here would be a special preparation that they have to make, but in most cases, pills and other treatments are ready to go. They’ll ask for your social security card to process the reimbursement, explain how the medication works and see if you have any questions and you’ll be on your way. There’s no wait time because you get the entire box of medication even if it contains more pills than your treatment requires, and your name, address and other personal details aren’t typed up on a label like they would be for American prescriptions. The times haven’t changed in 50 years because French pharmacists still hand write the instructions right on the box.
3. French pharmacies’ business hours are very different.
Most of the pharmacies in my area are open from about 9 a.m. until noon. They’ll then close for lunch until about 2 or 2:30 p.m., reopen and stay open until 6 p.m. or so. Some stay open a little bit later. French pharmacies are NOT open 24 hours although there’s a pharmacie de garde in each town or commune that is required to stay open 24 hours (and they rotate so it’s not always the same pharmacy) for after-hours emergencies.
4. There are no pharmacy chains in France.
There are no French equivalents of CVS or Duane Reade in France because French pharmacies are all privately owned (might be a few exceptions but nowhere near the scale of pharmacy chains in the U.S.) All pharmacies have a flashy green pharmacy sign out front that easily identifies them as a pharmacy. That’s the same everywhere.
5. Drugs are CHEAP.
My pharmacist loves me because I am always so happy to pay for my medicines, which are in most cases 50-90% less than the cost of the same thing in the U.S. (even without any reimbursement from the secu). Prescription medicine prices are regulated by the government so they’re the same price at every pharmacy. For medicines like Advil or Maalox, each pharmacist can set his own price (within reason). Drops for pink eye for example cost nearly $100 in the U.S. for a little tube and the exact same thing cost me about $15 — and then I’m reimbursed 70% of that. I bought an Epipen for my best friend’s son here in France for 78 euros (box of 2) and delivered it to her when we visited. She would have paid over $500 back in the US for the same thing.
6. French pharmacy employees are all trained in pharmacology.
It’s very common to be friendly with your pharmacist and to have 10-minute conversations with him or her (goes double if you’re over 70). When picking up a prescription, you might talk about your health problems, get advice, get questions answered that you forgot to ask the doctor, etc. In France, everyone who works in the pharmacy is trained — the minimum being préparateur en pharmacie — and is able to do more than just ring you up or check records in a computer. In the US, sometimes you’ll pick up a prescription and the person who helps you is a cashier and not trained in pharmacology so you’ll have to wait if you have a medicine-specific question.
Also, all the over-the-counter medicines are usually behind the counter so forget about discreetly grabbing diarrhea medication and heading to the self-checkout. OTC medicines like Advil are only available at pharmacies (not the supermarket) and you have to talk to someone to get said medicine. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing unless you have a loud talking pharmacist or a huge line behind you.
What do you think of pharmacies in France? What would you add?