The chief executive of the General Pharmaceutical Council says companies supplying prescription drugs online need to be professional when doing so
Online pharmacies selling prescription drugs must see themselves as part of a healthcare intervention, rather than simply retailers selling a commercial product, says an industry regulator.
General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) chief executive Duncan Rudkin believes the “fundamental and important” distinction between treating patients and selling to customers has been lost to some extent.
Speaking at the Westminster Health Forum last month, Rudkin said that online pharmacists must do more to ensure high-risk drugs such as painkillers are not prescribed inappropriately.
E-pharmacies conducting inadequate identity checks, and relying too heavily on the information provided by patients — without making follow-up queries — puts children and vulnerable adults at risk, according to Rudkin.
He added: “Concerns have been raised about the misuse, abuse and overuse of medicines, and medications that come with a risk of addiction — through media reports, and in some cases, tragically, through coroner’s inquests.
“A lot of the media focus has been on opioids [painkilling drugs] but this is also about mental health medications, and medicines that require ongoing monitoring while they’re being taken.”
He also highlighted the consumer-driven layout of some online pharmacies, commenting on how the purchase process is often driven by pushing consumers to select medicine as a product, rather than offering any support or advice.
The GPhC has seen websites designed in ways that — either accidentally or deliberately — coach patients to provide answers in order to get the specific prescription drug they want, which creates additional risk, Rudkin said.
GPhC guidelines could lead to a ‘new era’ in the supply of prescription drugs online
In April 2019 the GPhC introduced a new set of regulations to address these specific issues with the online pharmaceutical industry.
This includes robust online identity checks — an area in which technology can “help massively”.
Online systems are capable of alerting online pharmacy teams when different names are used with the same payment details, or multiple users ask for deliveries to the same address.
Rudkin also emphasised the need to challenge the design of some e-pharmacy websites to make them operate more professionally.
He added that improved governance information would help people understand what they are getting into with online pharmacies — and how to seek help with any problems if necessary.
The GPhC website has also started publishing regular inspection reports on whether or not e-pharmacies are meeting the requirements for its new guidelines, Rudkin said.
He added: “It does feel like a new era to me in terms of openness and visibility of regulation and standards.
“We are starting to see some improvements in practice — some e-pharmacies have stopped supplying opioids and other high-risk medicines altogether.”
The potential of e-pharmacies as a force for good in healthcare
Despite concerns over patient safety, Rudkin also said he believes the issue is not as black and white as saying “online is bad, and offline is good”.
He added: “Technology not only has massive potential to improve efficiency but also — much more importantly from my point of view — safety and quality.
“Online drug dispensation can be done well and it can be done badly, just like face-to-face services.
“We cannot achieve what we need to if we’re operating in isolation — we’re working increasingly with the Care Quality Commission and the General Medical Council.
“This continues to be a priority area for us and we’ll continue to approach it in the spirit of constructive engagement — wherever possible.”