Pharmacy2U’s “potentially highly misleading” advertisement campaign with the Evening Standard online directory encourages users to register with the company's services via a banner ad that appears under all individual pharmacy listings.
Several readers flagged the issue with C+D and have expressed concerns that this could be a ploy to “poach” patients from bricks-and-mortar pharmacies, or a deliberate attempt to “dupe” people into thinking they are supporting their local pharmacy, rather than signing up to Pharmacy2U’s services.
When asked by C+D for more details and whether it was aware of the terms of the advertising campaign, Pharmacy2U declined to comment.
The Evening Standard has also been contacted for comment.
Keerti Kanani, pharmacist owner of Cranston Chemist in Thornton Heath, said: “It is very unethical and unprofessional. We have patients coming in, thinking we are part of Pharmacy2U who expect us to sort any problems.
“They are deliberately misleading patients and implying that pharmacies in the community do not provide the same service,” she claimed.
Meanwhile, an anonymous independent contractor based in London claimed the actions of Pharmacy2U are helping to undermine public confidence in bricks-and-mortar pharmacies by “duping” patients into signing up for the wrong service.
The contractor has called for swift action to be taken.
“It will be the most vulnerable and elderly…patients who suffer unless authorising bodies review and correct it, with us left picking up the pieces when patients come into the actual pharmacy they thought they were signing up to,” they told C+D.
Regulator and watchdog responses
The General Pharmaceutical Council told C+D that it has been made aware of the issue and the relevant teams are reviewing the situation.
The advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority, told C+D it had received nine complaints regarding Pharmacy2U's advertising in the Evening Standard, “over claims it is misleading consumers and it not clearly being an ad”.
However, it stressed that “there is currently not an investigation into these ads, as we are still reviewing and assessing these complaints”.
NPA calls for "prompt action"
Gareth Jones, head of corporate affairs at the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), said: “A number of NPA members have contacted us with concerns about new advertising tactics by Pharmacy2U.
“We believe the new adverts, which place Pharmacy2U branding in close proximity to the listings of other pharmacies, are potentially highly misleading.”
The NPA has contacted regulators for “a swift review of the situation and prompt action”, Mr Jones added.
This is not the first time Pharmacy2U adverts have received complaints. In 2018, adverts claiming that the online pharmacy saves the NHS £300 million a year were removed by the Advertising Standards Authority, as it ruled the claims were “not currently realistic”.
Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists’ Association, said he is “extremely concerned” by the potential for patients to be misled by the advertising and is looking to investigate the matter further.
“It is not clear in some parts of the directory which links take people to the listed pharmacy they may be looking for, rather than the Pharmacy2U website,” he said.
“We are liaising with our members and will consider whether this issue should be referred to the relevant authorities.”
Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple pharmacies (AIMp), maintains that this type of marketing tactic can reflect negatively on the pharmacy profession and pledged to “address this issue with immediate effect”.
“AIMp will be liaising with regulators and stakeholders to highlight the issues regarding some of the advertising tactics used by online pharmacies that are showing the profession in a bad light, and urgently seek to understand what the regulators can do to address these issues,” she said.
AIMp: "Resist online pharmacy"
Dr Hannbeck's comments come as she calls on the sector to come together to “resist online pharmacy” and the “ever-increasing aggressive advertising tactics” some of them use.
She affirmed that the sector must not allow the argument to develop that online dispensing saves the NHS money, stating it is a “myth” and that “all pharmacies are paid in the same way from the same pot, whether they are online or located in the high street”.
“Delivering medicines remotely will reduce the amount of funding available to bricks-and-mortar pharmacies that will cease to employ as many local, trained, skilled staff and not be able to supply the same levels of care and attention. Eventually, they will close completely,” she warned.
Dr Hannbeck noted that the issue with online pharmacies is that they are often “not familiar with local doctors” as opposed to a local community pharmacist who maintains regular contact with a patient’s GP.
“We’re aware of a patients' health histories, health needs and the medicines they take so can advise them on how to take their medicines properly, therefore helping reduce medicines wastage and making a saving for the NHS.
“If pharmacies are no longer there who would the population turn to? Surely not to A&E departments and overstretched GP surgeries,” Dr Hannbeck asked.