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'It seems pharmacies have acquired a new regulator'

Lawyer David Reissner reflects on the CQC's recent focus on online pharmacies

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) is best known for its role in regulating care homes, dental practices and, more recently, GP practices. However, as recent events have shown, the CQC’s remit is a wide one.

The Health and Social Care Act 2008 required certain healthcare practitioners – including doctors and some other prescribers, but not pharmacists – to be registered with the CQC. Anyone who is required to register is guilty of an offence if they fail to do so.

The Act requires the Secretary of State to make regulations to secure that regulated activities cause no avoidable harm to the persons for whom the services are provided. Legal duties are then imposed on the CQC to:

  • conduct reviews of the regulated activities by service providers
  • assess the performance of the service providers following each such review
  • publish a report of its assessment.

Online services that involve prescribing fall within the CQC’s jurisdiction, and all UK websites that provide such a service must be registered. This includes pharmacy businesses that provide patients with the ability to seek prescription medicines online.

In the past, the CQC seems to have ignored online pharmacies. However, prompted in part by a BBC radio investigation that revealed last year that some prescribers are being lax about prescribing antibiotics, the CQC has suddenly become very active.

The CQC has the legal power to carry out inspections of any business carrying on a regulated activity. In recent months, the CQC has visited a number of online pharmacies with large teams of investigators, and spent a long time carrying out inspections. It has expressed “significant concerns about patient safety”. In some cases, registration has been suspended. In other cases, warnings have been given. In each case, the CQC publishes a report which, if critical, can be damaging to the reputation of a business.

The chief inspector of the CQC has said: “As with conventional GP surgeries…online companies and pharmacies are required to provide safe, high-quality and compassionate care and must adhere to exactly the same standards. They must not cut corners.”

The CQC does not seem to have taken much interest in pharmacy in the past, but in addition to the General Pharmaceutical Council, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and NHS England, pharmacy has acquired a new regulator.

It seems likely that those online pharmacies that provide a prescribing service – but have not yet had a visit from the CQC – will not have long to wait.

David Reissner is senior healthcare partner at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys LLP

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