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Online pharmacies: Are you being served?

Online pharmacies and drug dispensers are facing a challenge getting the right balance of oversight and customer service – and there’s a lot more at stake than lost sales.

A recent BBC News investigation reported that patients' lives are being put at risk because it is too easy to buy prescription-only medicines from online pharmacies. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) described the findings as raising “very serious concerns”.

The report poses important questions for all digital pharmacy services: are you confident that you are supplying medicines to the right people? The implications of getting it wrong are far reaching and could not only damage your reputation but could also endanger a life.

Read more: On digital changes: Let’s make Pharmacy First happen 

The need to quickly and accurately check a customer’s identity is both a legal prerequisite and a moral obligation, but online vendors are faced with a challenge. Poor online experience because of cumbersome and time-consuming verification processes will quickly result in customers going elsewhere and not returning. Certainly, a balance must be struck between customer satisfaction and safety, but where’s the sweet spot?


Drugs delivered directly to your doorstep


The range of services provided by pharmacies both online and in store has quickly grown in recent times, from drug dispensing to consultations, treatments and the administering of the medication itself.

Online pharmacy services delivering medications to patients’ homes has seen significant growth over recent years and is set to continue, as more people demand the convenience of products delivered to where and when it suits them.

Read more: The way forward: Remote supervision in community pharmacy

Growth in online pharmacies has been driven by several factors recently:

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmacies played an important role in maintaining the healthcare system, as people increasingly turned to pharmacies with their health problems
  • The COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns pushed many services online with delivery and collection options
  • Difficulties in getting GP appointments and lengthy NHS waiting lists
  • An ageing, less mobile population
  • The cost of an NHS prescription in some parts of the UK

The public has also generally become more empowered by the internet with vast access to more information and awareness about medical conditions, and the potential treatments available to them.

Online pharmacy providers must ensure that they are legal, compliant, and adhere to the General Pharmacy Council (GPhC) guidelines on distance-selling prescription and pharmacy-grade medicines. Section 4.2 of the GPhC guidelines for pharmacist prescribers states that the prescriber should have robust processes to check the identity of the patient.

Read more: How are 2024's packaging trends addressing common patient problems?

Another contextual challenge is the extremely narrow margin that online pharmacies operate within, especially once delivery costs are factored in. This means that a high first-time pass rate for identity checks is essential. If a customer fails the first check they will typically cancel their order.

A fully robust process must also accommodate those who do not hold traditional identity documentation, such as a passport or driving licence and others who, for one reason or another, lack an adequate data footprint to be successfully verified at the first attempt.


Strong, assured digital trust


The good news is that proven, AI-driven technology solutions are already specifically addressing these problems for some online pharmacies. They offer things like data, analysis and decisioning tools to speed up and increase the accuracy of automated checks.

Many solutions can be integrated into a pharmacy’s own technology system and/or be embedded into the customer journey. Some providers offer desktop and mobile app solutions, adding convenience for customers to take photos of their identity documents and a selfie as part of the process.

Read more: From an accountant: Pharmacy First and its profitability

But online pharmacies must consider whether this is enough. Confirming not just the age, but the person’s existence at a given address is a simple additional step and could stop someone, for example, using a deceased relative’s identity to obtain controlled medicines. It would also ensure that the vendor is operating safely in line with the GPhC’s guidance regarding the 'right' person receiving the medication.

But even then, you could still be vulnerable to first-party fraud techniques that use data manipulation to create multiple accounts capable of passing simple ID existence checks and gaining access to harmful medication. For protection against this, you need verification checks to draw data from multiple consumer sources and statistically link the information so that the resulting records have a very high probability of being accurate and reliable.

For the sake of competitiveness, it's essential that vendors seek a solution that can be easily deployed in a way that works for their business and in turn enhances the customer experience.

Read more: Helping community pharmacy prepare for a service-led future

This means finding a solution provider that takes the time to understand your pharmacy’s specific business needs, customer journey and pain points. It is also prudent to ensure your vendor of choice is routinely incorporating future regulations into current capability, for example providing mortality checks to ensure repeat prescriptions are not being misused.


Smart checks keep the regulator happy


Online pharmacies can achieve far-reaching efficiencies and importantly, avoid the threat of sanction, simply through the adoption of smart, robust identity checks. This will not only significantly reduce admin time, but a higher first-time pass rate will result in fewer basket abandonments and allow genuine prescription orders to be fulfilled and dispatched more quickly.

Read more: The problem unveiled: Reporting medicine shortages

The corresponding increase in customer satisfaction, revenues and customer loyalty, will go a long way to offset the cost in the long run. But more importantly, strong, assured ID verification processes at point of sale will ensure that the online pharmacy fully meets its regulatory obligations and is able to continue dispensing medicines to customers for years to come.

Lorraine Salmond is head of identity strategy for LexisNexis Risk Solutions, UK & Ireland

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