More than one in seven adults in the UK say they’ve bypassed the healthcare system to get prescription only medications without seeing a doctor, according to the medicines regulator MHRA. By this, they mean not seeing a GP or other healthcare professional who can issue prescriptions.
GPs are now moving over to managing repeat prescriptions online, rather than ticking a form. These are risk-free and can save time, with the prescription being sent straight to the pharmacy.
Legitimate online pharmacies can save you money but beware of bogus sites.
People now use the internet to buy almost anything and in recent years the web has seen an increase in sites selling medicines. For many, online prescription services are an essential part of home healthcare, unrivalled in terms of access and convenience. The risk lies in the fact that many of these sites are registered outside the UK and therefore outside of UK regulatory and legal control.
What kind of medications can you buy online?
Almost anything and for some sites, with no restrictions. In the UK, medicines are categorised in three main ways: they can be bought over the counter (OTC) from many retailers; with advice and certain restrictions from a pharmacist; or where medicines are particularly potent, prescription only. Purchasing prescription only medicines from unauthorised sources means you increase your risk of buying substandard and potentially dangerous medicines that may not be appropriate for you.
The risks of Internet prescription medications
The MHRA says 50 to 90% of medicines bought without a prescription, or via unregulated websites, are counterfeit.
Anyone contemplating purchasing what may be a prescription only medicine is strongly urged to consult their doctor, rather than purchase the medicine direct from an Internet supplier without a prescription.
Prescription medicines should be used under the care and supervision of a doctor who has assessed your needs and can advise on potential side effects, interactions and safe dosage levels. If you take a medicine that has not been prescribed for you it may damage your health.
The World Health Organisation warns that the global internet health market contains counterfeit or illegal medication - these include slimming pills, antibiotics or drugs misused for recreational purposes.
Finding trustworthy sites
From July 2015, anybody in the UK selling medicines online needs to be registered with the regulator MHRA and to be on its list of UK registered online retail sellers.
A special logo also has to be displayed under European regulations, which can be clicked through to verify the site on the UK regulator's list.
This is in addition to the pharmacy regulator, the General Pharmaceutical Council, which uses a special green cross ‘registered pharmacy’ logo in a voluntary scheme for legitimate websites in the UK, to help consumers tell the good sites from the unregulated ones.
Clicking on the logo also takes people through to the pharmacy regulator's website where they can verify the retailer is genuine.
Before buying medicines online, pharmacists advise:
- Check the registration status of the pharmacist.
- Look for the name and address of the pharmacy operating the website. It should be connected to a genuine ‘bricks and mortar’ pharmacy.
- Avoid websites that offer to supply prescription-only medicines without a prescription. This is not legal in the UK, and it is not safe.
- Check whether or not you are asked questions before purchasing your medicine. Registered pharmacies must check that a medicine is suitable for a patient before selling it.