New safeguards to protect people trying to obtain medicines online

The pharmacy regulator is seeking views on its proposals that online pharmacies will have to put in place new safeguards to protect people who want to obtain medicines online, including opiates, antibiotics, asthma inhalers and Botox.

The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) says it is concerned that it can sometimes be too easy to obtain certain medicines on the internet.

A discussion paper sets out how the GPhC plans to strengthen its guidance for the owners of online pharmacies based in Great Britain to help make sure people can obtain medicines safely and effectively online.

Duncan Rudkin, Chief Executive of the General Pharmaceutical Council, said:
“We are concerned that patients may be able to access medicines that are not clinically appropriate for them from online primary care services. Medicines are not ordinary items of commerce, and must not be treated as such.

“Regulating healthcare services on the internet is complex, with different organisations and agencies responsible for different parts of the service. We want to play our part in strengthening the safeguards in place for patients and the public through the guidance we set for pharmacy owners and through our inspections of online pharmacy services.

“We are also working closely with other regulators in Great Britain involved in regulating online prescribing services to make sure patients are protected at each stage.”

“We want to hear people’s views on these proposals, to make sure we have addressed all of the key issues in this rapidly changing area. We are particularly keen to hear the experiences of patients and the public who may have used online pharmacy services.”

The GPhC proposes in the paper that there are certain categories of medicines that may not be suitable to be prescribed and supplied online unless further action is taken to make sure that they are clinically appropriate for the patient, such as contacting the patient’s GP. It would therefore not be appropriate for pharmacy owners to work with prescribing services unless they are assured that safeguards are in place for certain prescription-only medicines.

These medicines include:

  • antibiotics, where it is important to effectively manage their use, to help slow the growth of antimicrobial resistance
  • opiates and sedatives, where there is a risk of addiction, misuse or overuse
  • medicines or medical products for chronic conditions (including asthma and diabetes) and mental health conditions where ongoing monitoring is important
  • non-surgical cosmetic medicinal products (such as Botox), which should only be prescribed following a physical examination

The discussion paper also seeks views about whether it is appropriate for pharmacy websites to allow patients to choose a prescription-only medicine, and its quantity, before having a consultation with a prescriber. One issue highlighted is that on some pharmacy websites a patient only has to answer an online questionnaire before the prescriber makes their prescribing decision, and can fill in multiple questionnaires, learning what answers to give so they can get the medicine in question.

The GPhC also raises concerns in the paper about potential additional risks to patients if pharmacy owners decide to work with prescribers or prescribing services operating outside the UK.

The paper proposes that if pharmacy owners do decide to work with prescribers based outside the UK, they will be expected to show how they are successfully managing the additional risks that this may create and that they are making sure the prescribers are keeping to national prescribing guidelines for the UK, and their home country regulator’s relevant legislation, ethical standards and guidance.

Patients should also be given enough information about the clinical service, and who is providing it, to make an informed decision about where to obtain medicines and other services.

Patients and the public and organisations that represent them, healthcare professionals, owners of primary care services and others with an interest in online pharmacy are encouraged to respond to the questions in the discussion paper before 21 August 2018.