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‘Many online pharmacies unregulated, illegal or fraudulent’, says MHRA

The medicines regulator has said that online pharmacies pose “significant risks”, amid new survey results showing that only 18% of the public had used one recently.

In a policy paper on the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s (MHRA) “use of artificial intelligence (AI) as a regulator of AI products”, the watchdog issued a warning about the “growing phenomenon” of online pharmacies.

“The online sale of medicines and medical devices” offers “convenience, anonymity and lower prices for consumers in search of, for example, cheap diet pills and cosmetic products,” it said in the report published yesterday (April 30).

But “it also poses significant risks” as “many online pharmacies are unregulated, illegal or fraudulent”, the regulator added.

Commenting on its responsibility to protect “consumers from fraudulent medical products”, the MHRA said that it is “currently developing a medicines website checking tool”.

The tool will allow members of the public to “report a website, social media platform or online marketplace they suspect of selling fake or illegal medicines and medical devices”, it added.

“We are starting work with other global regulators and technology partners to begin prototyping products with AI in this area,” it said.


Concerns over “trustworthiness”


Meanwhile, a poll conducted by Healthwatch between November 20 and 26 of 1,650 people in England found that “online pharmacies are much less used” than bricks-and-mortar pharmacies.

While it found that 72% of respondents had used a community pharmacy in the past three months, just 18% of respondents had used an online pharmacy in the same time frame. 

And only 54% of people who “used an online pharmacy at some point said they would be likely to do so again”, Healthwatch said.

It added that some pharmacy users had “concerns with the trustworthiness of the service offered by online pharmacies”.

“If you get all the way down to the end of the form and it says to you ‘this medication is not suitable for your needs’, you can just refresh the page and start again and change all your answers”, one interviewee told the charity. 

Healthwatch stressed that it did not “specifically define ‘online pharmacy’ in [its] poll” so “some respondents may have answered thinking about their use of the website of their local pharmacy” and figures for DSPs specifically may be lower.


DSPs and physical pharmacies “substitutable”


It comes after the competition authority this month deemed bricks-and-mortar pharmacies and distance-selling pharmacies (DSPs) “substitutable”.

The claim came in a document detailing its reasoning for approving the merger of the UK’s two largest DSPs - Pharmacy2U and LloydsDirect.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said that evidence it received supported a view that high street pharmacies are “a suitable alternative to DSPs”.

In November, the competition authority had announced that it was investigating Pharmacy2U’s acquisition of LloydsDirect.

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