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A detailed analysis of online pharmacy characteristics to inform safe usage by patients


Background Evidence suggests that consumers potentially put themselves at risk when purchasing medicines on-line. Whilst logos provided by regulators may provide some level of reassurance there may be other indicators which could be used by consumers to identify those websites which may be safely used. Objectives Identify characteristics of on-line pharmacies which are related to whether websites are regulated or non-regulated and those characteristics which could be used by patients to increase the likelihood of accessing regulated sites. Setting Online pharmacies which supply diazepam, fluoxetine and simvastatin. Methods Using piloted search terms via Google and Yahoo search engines, identified websites were screened for regulatory status, adherence to regulatory standards, administrative requirements, clinical assessment requirements and additional details deemed to be of relevance to a user. Characteristics of regulated and non-regulated (defined as those with an absence of a correctly linked regulatory logo) websites were compared to identify differences which could be used to improve patient safety. Main outcome measure Regulatory status, adherence to regulatory standards, quality of information provision, barriers to medicines access. Results 113 websites sold diazepam, fluoxetine and simvastatin; were identified within the first 100 results. Less than quarter were found to be regulated online pharmacies. 80 websites were willing to sell the medication without a prescription. The unregulated internet pharmacy websites (defined as those with an absence of a correctly linked regulatory logo) were found to adhere more closely to the clinical criteria, were less significantly likely to disclose a contact name and address, telephone number of the pharmacy or demand a prescription prior to sale (P < 0.05, Fisher’s Exact). Conclusions The three prescription-only medicines which are liable to abuse, have potentially serious interactions and require counselling to ensure patient safety are readily available via the internet. When purchasing medicines via this route UK consumers should be made aware of the importance of regulatory logos and additionally should ensure that the seller can be meaningfully contacted by the contact details provided. The provision of clinical information should not be used alone as an indication of the seller’s provenance.

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This work was supported by the School of Pharmacy, University of East Anglia.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest to disclose.

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Correspondence to Bassam M. Alwon.

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Alwon, B.M., Solomon, G., Hussain, F. et al. A detailed analysis of online pharmacy characteristics to inform safe usage by patients. Int J Clin Pharm 37, 148–158 (2015).

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  • Abuse
  • Consumer counselling
  • Internet
  • Online pharmacy
  • Regulations