Online pharmacies are putting patients at risk, a watchdog warned, after use has doubled since the initial lockdown.
The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPC) has issued a safety warning, saying that more than 30 percent of disciplinary cases now being considered by regulators involve prescriptions from websites.
The numbers show how the public has increasingly turned to pharmacy websites after struggling to access GP appointments after the initial lockdown.
Watchdogs said companies were handing out too many drugs without asking enough questions and in dangerously large quantities.
Too often, patients were put at risk by sites that simply asked customers to complete an online questionnaire, without any further interaction, even with risky drugs, they said.
Watchdogs found sites that prescribed “large amounts” of prescriptions for short periods of time to the same patients and high-risk drugs were approved without proper monitoring.
The GPC said it had already placed restrictions on some online pharmacies due to security concerns, and expects further action pending investigations.
The regulator said more than 30 percent of pharmacists’ current 653 Fitness to Practice surveys involve those who work for online pharmacies.
The GPC has written to pharmacy owners, “We are writing to make you aware of serious patient safety concerns that we continue to identify with regard to some online pharmacies and online prescribing services.”
Data from the NHS Business Services Authority shows how the use of such businesses has risen since the pandemic. Last year, 53 million articles were issued by online pharmacies, compared to 42 million articles in 2020 and 29 million articles in 2019.
Regulators have registered 635 pharmacies in the UK as online services.
The number is dwarfed by the 14,000 brick-and-mortar pharmacies out there, but watchdogs warned Tuesday they had a “disproportionate” impact on disciplinary cases.
The GPC said it has taken enforcement action against more than 50 online pharmacies since 2019, after identifying patient safety risks.
Inspections of 394 online pharmacies between April 2019 and April 2022 found that only 71 percent met standards, compared to 85 percent in the rest of the industry.
Diagnosis via Google
dr. Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, said more and more people have become accustomed to going online in search of medicines, especially if they are struggling to see their GP.
She said: “It has become a habit for many people. If you can’t see your doctor, people get desperate and start treating themselves, especially when they’re in pain. The danger is that it becomes a diagnosis via Google and that patients are at risk, with drugs that can do a lot of damage.”
dr. Hannbeck said broader trends, with greater reliance on online purchases and home delivery since the pandemic, had exacerbated the pattern.
She urged those considering purchasing prescriptions online to seek advice from a local pharmacist or consult their own GP.
The pharmacist said the online sector is full of bad practices, including the use of counterfeit medicines, and needs to be scrutinized much more closely. And she said high-street pharmacies were much better at spotting “alarm bells,” such as attempts to abuse heavy painkillers.
Duncan Rudkin, GPC chief executive said: “Online pharmacies and prescribing services can provide people with real benefits, but people can be at serious risk if they can get medicines that are not right for them. We take strong measures to protect patient safety when we go online unsafe prescribing or supplying medicines.
“We urge people who want to buy drugs online to only use online pharmacies registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council, to ask questions about how the service works and to answer questions about their health completely and accurately.”
Prescriptions for opioids
In a separate email to pharmacy owners today, the council urged them not to partner with online providers who “try to circumvent” UK regulations to “ensure patient safety”.
Earlier this year, a Pharmaceutical Journal survey found that 22 percent of online pharmacies inspected had failed to meet at least one standard, compared with less than three percent of brick-and-mortar pharmacies.
It follows repeated attempts to crack down on pharmacy services that work with doctors outside the UK.
Current regulators require anyone prescribing in the UK to be registered in the home country from which the prescription is issued, while following UK prescribing guidelines.
The April analysis found that a third of inspection reports for failing online pharmacies contained links to prescription services outside the UK – mostly in Romania, but also in the Czech Republic and Germany.
Some online firms have been found to issue prescriptions for opioids and similar drugs almost entirely, with no evidence of attempts to ensure safe use.
Doctors based in Romania
In February, online medical service Pharmacorp Ltd, also known as Medicine Direct, was ordered to pay £13,670 by Tameside Magistrates’ Court after pleading guilty to providing services without being registered with regulators.
Watchdogs discovered that high-strength co-codamol and nerve pain drugs were prescribed to patients by doctors in Romania, who were registered with the British General Medical Council. The Care Quality Commission said the company’s website was “misleading” in suggesting that UK-based doctors were being used.
In evidence submitted to the Health and Social Care Select Committee last year, the CQC said it has “current examples of death and serious damage caused by digital services delivered from outside England”.
“We believe that as digital services grow in popularity and breadth, there will be a gap in government power over the next decade to intervene where harm is being caused,” the evidence said.
The regulator had previously said that online pharmacies were putting patients at risk by dispensing drugs after assessments lasting just 17 seconds.
Watchdogs said potent and addictive drugs, including opiates, were dispensed on the back without proper checks on patients’ identity or medical history.