In recent years, the UK has seen considerable growth in the use of online pharmacies. At the same time concern has grown at the relative ease of obtaining a prescription through these companies via an online ‘medical consultation’.
These consultations inevitably involve completing a form on their website, much of which involves ticking boxes and then awaiting an emailed response. Whilst further questions may be asked, in many cases the response is that your prescription has already been issued and the drugs are being dispatched from the warehouse.
Of course, for many drugs, their suitability for a particular person, their condition and situation, does not depend upon a physical, or even a visual examination. Rather, if the patient answers all of the relevant questions accurately, a doctor should be able to make an assessment as to whether the drug is appropriate for them. The problem of course is that depends upon both the patient properly understanding each and every question and, crucially, answering all of those questions honestly.
At the end of the day we’re all human and in certain situations I’m sure that many of us would concede that we may not always agree that the doctor knows best. Both of those issues – understanding and honesty – are ones which arguably can be better dealt with in a face-to-face scenario.
The has been a growing belief that it is largely the apparent ease of these online consultations, rather than the convenience of mail order delivery, that has fuelled the growth of this sector.
However, another more recent factor in the popularity of these companies has been the stockpiling of medicines against a perceived post-Brexit shortage. The Department for Health and Social Care was criticised for offering little advice and reassurance to people who feared being unable to obtain supplies of their usual prescription drugs.
Now, the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPC) has issued ‘Guidance for registerd pharmacies providing pharmacy services at a distance, including on the internet’. The new requirements include:
- obliging pharmacy websites not to allow a patient to choose a prescription-only medicine and its quantity before an appropriate consultation has taken place;
- ensuring pharmacy staff can identify requests for medicines that are inappropriate, including identifying multiple orders to the same address;
- putting in place robust processes to carry out identity checks on people obtaining medicines.
Further safeguards will also have to be in place before a range of categories of medicines can be supplied. These include antibiotics, products used for non-surgical cosmetic purposes such as Botox and medicines that are deemed liable to abuse, overuse or misuse, or where there is a risk of addiction.