The Rise of Online Medical Care: Pharmacies

Are internet prescriptions risky or reliable? Just as with using GP apps, ordering medicine from an online pharmacy is a quick and easy way to get medical care, with no queuing, travelling or excess time spent. Instead, you can use the internet to undergo a quick consultation (MedExpress, for example, offers a two minute consultation), be issued a prescription. The medicine can then arrive at your door in a matter of days, if not hours.

The Growth of Online Pharmacies

Arguably, there are some potential benefits of using an online pharmacy. In addition to convenience, one such service, Oxford Online Pharmacy emphasises its ‘discreet services’ meaning that anyone who might be embarrassed about their medication need not publicly consult a pharmacist in person, nor have a face to face consultation with a doctor. The same website also assures ‘great value for money’, another factor that might attract consumers. Other sites also advertise cheap prices, with boasting of medicine at up to 50% cheaper than its competitors.

Indeed, online pharmacies, like GP apps, are becoming more popular, with a 2019 YouGov poll recording that 25% of UK adults considered themselves likely to use such a service in the near future.

Online medication comes in many different forms

What Are the Risks of Using Online Pharmacies?

Whilst online pharmacies might appear a useful and subtle tool, there are some serious risks associated with them, if you don’t use the right ones for the right types of products and medications. For example, as the NHS website warns, ordering medicine over the internet means it could be ‘out-of-date, diluted or fake.’ This seems particularly concerning when coupled with the results of a survey undertaken by Atomik Research on behalf of the Independent Pharmacy in January 2019, which found that 83% of respondents did not know how to test if medicine they were sold online was safe to use.

Indeed, though registered pharmacies do operate online (in conjunction with bricks and mortar pharmacies) illegal websites selling potentially dangerous medication also exist, so you should always exercise caution.

Online Consultations

Some sites provide only a questionnaire or form by way of consultation. This might not always be verified by the person’s GP, and enables people to lie about their medical history, possibly resulting in them gaining access to prescription medications when they may well have a history of prescription medication misuse. This possibility was tested in April 2019 as part of BBC Panorama’s ‘Online Doctors Uncovered,’ illustrating how a woman who had previously been treated for an eating disorder could easily order diet pills over the internet by simply lying about her medical history.

Not only can customers lie about their medical history, but doctors working at online pharmacies can ignore information or neglect to inform a GP of prescriptions. This has been the cause of genuine tragedy in the past few years. In the aftermath of the Panorama documentary, the BBC reported on multiple deaths as the result of people who had developed substance misuse issues gaining access to opioids online. These are a class of highly addictive painkillers including morphine and fentanyl.

Online pharmacies and those operating them, if unscrupulous, can be exploitative and irresponsible. As recently as July 2019, two doctors working for White Pharmacy, a company that is a registered UK online pharmacy and therefore legal, were found to have ignored procedure.

Though Dr Pooley and Dr Dharmasena were supposed to have confirmation for the prescription of opioids from their customers’ GPs and undertake an adequate medical check according to laws introduced this year by the General Pharmaceutical Council, they did not do so, resulting in multiple patients receiving opioids they would not otherwise have had access to. The Times reported that one woman was issued with thirteen prescriptions over thirteen months, with dihydrocoedine tablets provided by both doctors. This highlights another issue of online pharmacies, which is the fact that multiple sites can be used at the same time.

The NHS website highlights that legitimate online pharmacies feature an internet pharmacy logo scheme, and will have a bricks and mortar address associated with them. Even with new regulations in place, online pharmacies could pose a potential danger.