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Pharmacy2U clashes with GPs and pharmacists over advertising

Business Pharmacists and GPs have clashed with internet business Pharmacy2U, which they claim is running a “misleading” direct mailing campaign to gain customers.

Pharmacists and GPs have clashed with internet business Pharmacy2U, which they claim is running a "misleading" campaign to gain customers.

Pharmacy2U was confusing patients by including the names of local GP surgeries in its advertising, representatives from both professions argued. The direct mailing suggested a link between Pharmacy2U and doctors, they claimed, causing some patients to believe the online service was a replacement for their local pharmacy.

But Pharmacy2U defended its marketing as a means of offering patients choice. The company's managing director Daniel Lee told C+D the campaign adhered to NHS and General Medical Council guidance and expressed concerns that pharmacists were looking to stifle competition from the online arena.

Pharmacy2U had rolled out the marketing in areas where GP surgeries had upgraded to paperless prescriptions, pharmacists told C+D.

The marketing lists local GP surgeries that the patient may belong to and informs them that, if they are registered with these surgeries, they could switch to ordering their prescriptions online. Pharmacy2U does include a footnote in its advertising stressing that GPs have not endorsed its communication.

The letters have attracted resistance from GPs. Londonwide Local Medical Committees said it was meeting with Pharmacy2U this month to discuss its concerns over the advertising. A GP surgery in the Croydon area has also written to patients to distance itself from the marketing.

Doncaster and Nottinghamshire LPCs secretary Nick Hunter said some patients in his area had inadvertently signed up to Pharmacy2U, thinking the activity had come from their own pharmacy.  

"[The campaign] is causing a lot of worry and taking up a lot of time for my contractors, who are dealing with patients who aren't happy about it," he told C+D. Mr Hunter added that "most GPs" shared local pharmacists' concerns.


Legal view

Noel Wardle, partner, Charles Russell

In general terms, it isn't unlawful for pharmacists to market directly to patients or unethical, even. It used to be the case that the regulator advised against direct marketing to patients, but that went quite a while ago, and it certainly isn't in the General Pharmaceutical Council's code of ethics now. So there aren't the restrictions there used to be.

There's a general regulatory obligation to make sure the letter is fair and doesn't disparage mthe services of others. The marketing must be open, honest and trustworthy.

The NHS says the same sort of thing in its code of conduct for the promotion of NHS-funded services – marketing should be fair and honest.

The comments were backed by Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham LPC secretary Jayesh Patel. Mr Patel sent out letters to local patients reminding them they were "free to choose" their pharmacy and to dispel any confusion caused by Pharmacy2U marketing.

The Department of Health could not confirm whether the advertising breached NHS regulations, but said it had received a query on the issue, which was currently under investigation.

Pharmacy2U said that it was simply offering patients another choice of pharmacy, and stressed that it had sent the letters through "established direct marketing channels".

"Patients have a right to a complete free choice of pharmacy for the dispensing of their NHS prescriptions, and Pharmacy2U simply adds to that mix," said managing director Daniel Lee. "I am concerned that pharmacy bodies are looking to protect the local pharmacies' monopoly."

NHS advertising: the rules

Pharmacy2U named GP surgeries and gave patient testimonials in its direct mail campaign. So how far can you go when advertising NHS services?

Direct mail Direct marketing is allowed – but under strict controls. Advertisers must make sure they comply with data protection legislation and keep their mailing lists up to date. If a customer asks to be removed from the list, the request must be dealt with promptly.

Patient testimonials Any testimonials used on the advertising must have been given freely without inducement. The company should also be able to prove that the opinions are representative of general patient views, which should have been established by surveys.

Other providers Promotional materials must avoid misleading customers by imitating copy, slogans or general layout used by other, unassociated providers.

Source: Code of practice for promotion of NHS services

What do you think about Pharmacy2U's marketing campaign?

Comment below or email us at [email protected] You can also find C+D on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook


Jon Flitcroft, Community pharmacist

Since all local surgeries went live in Jan 2015 we have lost count of the queries we've had thinking the P2U mailing is from us. I know of at least 3 patients who have unwittingly signed and have been without medication for a day. I rang customer service to try and get Rx returned, was on hold for 15 minutes and then told there was nothing they could do as it had already been dispensed. When I complained about the misleading mailshots I was just given the standard rebuff given in the article.

, Superintendent Pharmacist

This is just the latest from P2U.
In the past, they have taken mailing lists from the GPs and then sent out letters to the patients on "behalf of the GP", recommending P2U service. Furthermore, the letters contained patient confidential data such as their dates of birth etc.
We complained to the GP and also the PCT. Although nobody ever admitted to any wrongdoing, the practice did stop, as it was clearly breaching all sorts of rules. The GP professed ignorance and blamed on his computer system EMIS sucking up the data without his knowledge. EMIS also owns P2U as far as I remember.

Sue Thompson, Non healthcare professional

This is not restricted to EMIS practices. We are SystmOne and P2U have used our details on their mailing without our knowledge or consent.

C A, Community pharmacist

What other information are they "sucking up"? I am worried this may be the start of a massive breach of confidentiality with personal, clinical information being "sucked up" and passed on. I hope I am wrong.

Rajiv Sarna,

pharmacy 2u, you cannot have it all! greedy leave a piece of cake for your fellow commarades and pharma

Robert Miller, Work for a health/commissioning consultancy company

I believe that in general there is no benefit in prescription drugs to be distributed by internet pharmacies. In the UK most areas are well served by community pharmacies and patients have the advantage of being able to consult with their pharmacist about interactions, side effects etc.

R. Mills Community Pharmacist

Local Pharmacist, Superintendent Pharmacist

Patients should be free to decide where they get their prescriptions dispensed, however P2Us marketing makes some patients think that it has either come from their GP or the NHS. Only today I had one of my pharmacists report that an elderly patient thought she had to sign the form that had come from the NHS and did not understand that she had signed for her prescriptions to be sent to Leeds. When she learned that her prescriptions would be dispensed and posted to her she was appalled and pretty upset. P2U have every right to market their services but they should make sure that people who sign up understand what they are signing up for and not give the impression that they have to sign up.
Last year P2U were working with GP practices and sending out marketing letters on practice headed paper to patient lists using a 3rd party. Although this may have been legal it may not be ethical especially if the practices were receiving any sort of benefit- i.e free postage runs etc.

Oliver Harris, Owner

To be fair to GPs though, they are concerned about this too ... this has been going on for some time despite what P2U says but C&D seems to have just picked it up.

Max Falconer is right though.. the independent sector has been slow to pick up on the dangers inherent in EPS 2 when roll out is national. Major chains will be advertising promos or loyalty card bonus points if patients sign up with them, AAH is planning an internet/mail order pharmacy focused solely on long term chronic conditions, More and more GPs are getting a pharmacy in their health centres and P2U's business plan has always been about EPS2 - they have been waiting for this for 10 years!

Oliver Harris, Owner

If I was an independent pharmacy I would be getting concerned. The real question here for Independents is the timing of these marketing campaigns. We speak to more and more pharmacies every week who tell us that as soon as the GP has upgraded, P2U starts leafleting their patients. As far as we know, these are all surgeries using EMIS software who, surprise surprise, has a not insignificant interest in P2U with their ex CEO sitting on P2U's board (as well as owning RX systems.) Is EMIS telling P2U when GPs upgrade and or providing mailing lists of patients???

This is nothing new. Allegedly, 4 years ago P2U and EMIS were caught out for sending marketing to GP Surgeries promoting a button in the EMIS software to send the prescription straight to P2U. They were aiming at GPs who didn't rate their local pharmacies or who thought this would make their life easier.

We see more and more GPs encouraging patients to order repeats direct from the surgery (though most are breaking IG rules with the email ordering forms they tend to have on their websites.) The more this happens the more the pharmacy's role is minimised and the more potential there is for direction ......

Steve Jeffers, Community pharmacist

My father in law received one of these letters from Pharmacy2U several months ago and there is just so much wrong with their approach.
The letters are misleading in that they make the patient think it is an official communication from their GP surgery or the NHS.
I made a complaint to the GPhC about the advertising but they were not interested despite the letter stating that deliveries could be left with others or somewhere safe if the patient was out. I have also complained to NHS Monitor about the implied linkage with the NHS and misuse of the NHS logo and await to hear something.
I urge all pharmacies affected by this advertising to complain to as many official bodies as possible and the PSNC/ RPS must take it up with their medical colleagues at a national level.

Daniel Lee, Superintendent Pharmacist

It is a shame that the headline is rather misleading. Pharmacy2U alongside the PSNC wrote to the LPC to amend their letter written to patients as this was disparaging and unethical. Unfortunately the LMC reproduced the letter.

max falconer, Superintendent Pharmacist

Unfortunately this is just the tip of the looming iceberg as EPS2 is rolled out.
Our regulator and professional body have not woken up to the damage that will be inflicted on the reputation of pharmacy by this development.
I can predict the most unseemly, disgraceful, illegal and time-wasting debacle as a massive ongoing landgrab for patients drains the remaining energy and professionalism from pharmacy UNLESS clear, explicit and rigorously enforced guidelines are put in force now. So not much hope of that then- too busy dealing with motoring offences and disputes with mobile phone we will all have to join the dash to the bottom of the professional pond fighting for patients as we sink.

Ian Woodrow, Locum pharmacist

My late mother was sent a letter from her GP practice offering to send her prescriptions directly to a pharmacy organisation. It may have been the one above and I honestly cannot remember, but this GP practice would not have gone to the trouble of contacting patients if there wasn't something in it for them.

Dodo pharmacist, Community pharmacist

if any patients feel they have been misled by this pharmacy2u advertising, then they should complain by post to NHS England, PO box 16738, Redditch B97 9PT or by email to [email protected], with" for the attention of the complaints manager " in the subject line.

Dodo pharmacist, Community pharmacist

the main problem with pharmacy 2u's advertising is that it is misleading patients. the envelopes arrive addressed to the patients, in a plain white envelope with "NHS electronic prescription service" printed on it in NHS blue. most patients then assume it is from the NHS and think they have to sign up for it. it is misleading patients plain and simple.

A K, Community pharmacist

This happened in the West Yorkshire as well. Quite a few elderly people already signed up with our collection service were confused and thought this was done by our local pharmacy.
Even though the rules of capitalistic society allow for all sorts of marketing I personally believe this quite aggresive marketing scheme targetting old and vunerable people is wrong. It is not about pharmacies having monopoly on NHS scripts, it is about patients fully understanding what they sign up and not being mislead by fancy letters or small print on the footnote.

Asmita Patel, Community pharmacist

We have already had a lot of concerned patients who have come in to ask if this was an NHS led service and we were part of it. Total confusion not knowing whether they should be signing the form or not. Luckily for us they came in to query but what about the ones who already think it is NHS led and they have to sign to get their prescriptions. They would be doing this through sheer worry of not getting their suplies of medications.
The advertising leaflet should be looked at microscopically by the likes all the organisations concerned and re vamped for it to be more transparent to the clients

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