You and Your Health: Is it ever safe to buy medicines online? 

The internet has made everything easier to buy. And that includes medicines. 

Online pharmacies have sprung up in recent years offering to provide quick, easy and discreet delivery of prescription and over-the-counter medication. While that may seem ideal for the modern ‘e-patient’ who wants 24/7 convenience, medicines are not consumer products. Selling them online creates several risks to patient safety. 

No prescription, no problem 

The main gamble is that you may be buying from an illicit criminal enterprise rather than a legitimate online pharmacy. Underground controlled drug dealing is no longer limited to the likes of Happy Valley’s diazepam dispensing pharmacist who illegally dole out pills for cash.  

There are unregulated companies online who hide behind the anonymity of e-commerce, preying on the vulnerable without any regard for their health. They allow consumers to buy prescription drugs online without a legitimate script from a doctor or prescriber. Medicines like highly addictive anti-depressants, opiates and opioids are commonly sold, as too are slimming pills, anabolic steroids and erectile dysfunction pills. 

The medicines they supply may be fake, ineffective, unapproved, diluted, recalled, out of date, stored in unhygienic conditions – the list goes on. Around one in ten people have bought fake medical products online in the last year. Doing so leaves you at risk of adverse reactions, overdose, toxicity, drug misuse or even death. 

Since 2008, the annual Operation Pangea, led by Interpol, has been combating the global trafficking of counterfeit pharmaceuticals marketed and sold online. Last June, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) seized 285,000 medicines and medical devices with a value of around £850,000. 

MHRA work hard to ensure medicines are closely monitored and regulated. The source, quality and authenticity of those bought online are difficult to verify.   

The rise of online consultations 

By law, a valid prescription must be given before dispensing any medication either via paper form or Electronic Prescription Service (EPS). Before you are prescribed any medication, your GP should give you guidance on suitability, dosage, side effects and whether it will interact with any other medication you take. Prescribers will also take into account any physical, psychological or social factors and only prescribe what suits the unique health needs of a patient. 

There are many legitimate online pharmacies selling prescription-only medicines following a quick online consultation whereby you click yes or no to a series of questions regarding your health.  

But who is to say a patient is being completely transparent about their medical history if they are trying to source these medicines out of dependency or desperation. There have also been cases in the past where a patient has created a series of accounts to request the same controlled drug numerous times during the month which has slipped through the vetting process of the online pharmacy. 

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) has clamped down on online pharmacies who prescribe via virtual consultation. They must now verify patients match their photo ID, get comprehensive and up-to-date medical history, ensure patients understand what medicine is being given, and seek permission to contact the patient’s GP. 

Things to remember: 

  • Look for the GPhC logo which identifies legitimate pharmacies registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council. Both online and bricks-and-mortar pharmacies must have this. 
  • If it looks too good to be true, it usually is. Don’t be fooled by claims like 100% safe, no side effects, or quick results. 
  • Report any adverse side effects to the Yellow Card scheme.