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Medicines over the Internet – What Consumers Need To Know

Safety risks of purchasing medicines online - Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency

Medicines over the Internet – What Consumers Need To Know

The internet has changed forever how we shop – we are no longer restricted to bricks and mortar retail outlets on our local high street. We can now use the internet for purchasing all sorts of commodities and this extends to buying medicines. Although little definitive research into the online purchase of medicines has been done - based on the increasing amount of online pharmacies that have emerged over the last few years - it is obvious that this is on the increase.

However, the internet allows consumers to self-prescribe and self-medicate by using it as a research tool to look up an ailment, the respective suggested treatments and then search for websites prepared to sell them the suggested medication. Usually illegal internet pharmacies trade in what are known as 'lifestyle' medicines - such as medication for erectile dysfunction, slimming pills, smoking cessation treatments, hair-loss, anti-depressants, painkillers, steroids for body-building etc.. These products attract a high demand due to either the perceived 'embarrassment' factor, the potential misuse of the products and/or the fact that a GP may not prescribe them to a particular patient for one reason or another.

Alarmingly, there is an increasing trend towards all types of medicines being offered for sale online, including those that may not be available via the NHS due to cost-restrictions; medication for people with mental illness where they would not want their employers to know (as this may effect employment or insurance cover); and so-called 'miracle medicines' for the seriously/terminally ill.

To address the safety risks posed to consumers by the increasing availability of medicines through the internet, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has published information on buying medicines online on the MHRA website.

The MHRA believes that the risks of obtaining fake, substandard, unlicensed or adulterated medicines are increased substantially by obtaining medicines online and to raise public awareness, specific campaigns to educate and warn consumers of the risks of purchasing prescription medicines online have been undertaken by the MHRA and by the MHRA in partnership with other stakeholders. In the last few years, the MHRA has engaged in such campaigns with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, Pfizer and patients associations - this has included information cards in pharmacy medicine packs, a hard-hitting cinema and TV campaign with mass press coverage including specialist pharmaceutical press, Bill board advertising and advertising at commuter stations. Visit the MHRA YouTube channel to see some of their campaign messages.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society registers online UK pharmacies and operates a verification logo on these pharmacies which allows the consumer/patient to check if the pharmacy is indeed registered. The guidance also stipulates that these registered pharmacies should clearly display a physical address and have a contactable telephone number back to the pharmacy during opening hours.

In the past seven years over 20 individuals have been successfully prosecuted by the MHRA for selling medicines illegally over the internet. The MHRA has also closed down over 12,000 websites in partnership with the Metropolitan Police Central e-Crime Unit and has brought into compliance hundreds more.

Key Facts
• The MHRA encourages the public to be aware that counterfeit medicines exist and are sometimes available in the UK.
• If your medicine smells different, looks different or you have any concerns – contact your pharmacist.
• If you are still suspicious – report it to the MHRA Counterfeits Hotline website
• Today’s culture of ‘self-diagnosis and ‘self-medication’ has created a society who may purchase online.
• When you buy medicines online, the risks of purchasing a counterfeit are dramatically increased.
• The MHRA strongly advises patients to consult a healthcare professional for a ‘face-to-face’ consultation as the right diagnosis can be made, the right medication can be prescribed and your GP can provide ongoing monitoring of your condition and advise on better / newer treatments or technologies.
If you follow the advice of the MHRA by seeing a healthcare professional and obtaining medicines from a registered pharmacist, then the chances of obtaining a counterfeit are extremely rare.

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Date: 27/05/2013