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.
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?