What Is a Dispensary?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 31 March 2020
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A dispensary distributes medications to patients on order or recommendation from a health care practitioner. Facilities that handle allopathic medicines prescribed in association with traditional Western treatment may call themselves pharmacies, while those that deal with alternative and complementary medicine like Chinese herbs may be called dispensaries. This distinction is more a matter of naming preference on the part of owners than a hard and fast difference.

At a dispensary, trained staff can process written orders for medications, which may arrive electronically if the system is connected to such systems. They can confirm the medication and the dosage, prepare it, and package it appropriately with directions for use. Some medications may be easy to dispense from bulk packaging, while others may need to be personally compounded for a specific patient.

Medications can also be sold over the counter at a dispensary that offers a mixture of services. Some sell herbal supplements and other medications that do not require specific medical orders. Staff can provide information and advice for customers with questions or concerns and may work with customers to help them meet particular needs. This can include information about ingredients, potential drug interactions, and sourcing of specific medications.


Historically, hospitals were known as dispensaries, and this convention can be seen in the names of some older hospital facilities which haven’t changed their names. Within a hospital, the department that handles preparation and distribution of medications may be known as the pharmacy or dispensary. It is typically staffed by trained pharmacists and technicians who are familiar with the stock and can safely prefer medications for patients.

Alternative and complementary medicine dispensaries may hire people familiar with naturopathy and other disciplines, as well as physicians trained in these traditions. The level of training and certification available can depend on the type of medicine as well as the location. In some nations, traditions like homeopathy are closely regulated and people may not practice without satisfying very specific requirements. Others have less stringent standards. Patients with questions about the level of education and training among staff members can ask for more information.

In parts of the United States and Canada, facilities that handle medical marijuana prescriptions also refer to themselves as dispensaries. This can create some confusion, as a “dispensary” doesn’t necessarily carry this product. Dispensaries specializing in complementary and alternative medicine that choose not to handle medical marijuana may field frequent questions from confused customers who may assume that herbal medicines include marijuana.


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