Investigative journalism plays an important part in our society. A BBC Inside Out programme in 2012 revealed that a few pharmacies were selling prescription-only medicines over the counter. The BBC claimed its investigation led to nine pharmacists being suspended or struck off, and the programme appeared to spur the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) into asking the government for greater investigatory powers.
Last year, the GPhC published guidance on internet pharmacies. In June this year, its fitness-to-practise committee suspended pharmacist David Paul Drury Nickels (registration 2042245), for failing to ensure appropriate standard operating procedures were in place to prevent “excessive” online sales of pharmacy-only medicines while he was superintendent at internet business MyPharmacist.co.uk.
The regulator used Mr Nickel’s hearing to stress: “Pharmacists who wish to make supplies of medicines online must be aware of the need to ensure that they provide the same level of patient care as they would provide to a patient in the pharmacy over the counter."
So it was with some trepidation that I tuned in to BBC’s 5 live Investigates earlier this month. The BBC said the programme would reveal that “some online pharmacies are selling antibiotics against guidelines laid down by Nice”.
Obviously, the risk of increasing resistance to antibiotics is a very serious matter and I listened carefully to the radio broadcast. However, 45 minutes later, I was left asking myself: is that it? The BBC’s reporter told us she had looked at 17 websites offering antibiotics. We were told that not all online pharmacies were going against best practice, but “a number” of them were. What number? Two, it seems. Only one of them was named. The antibiotics it supplied were apparently inappropriate for the ear infection referred to. Another online pharmacy, unnamed, supplied medication inappropriately in response to three separate requests.
In my view, programmes like this do a disservice to the real issues, such as whether more needs to be done to stop GPs prescribing antibiotics unnecessarily. Referring to 17 pharmacies, but only managing to get antibiotics from two of them, doesn’t send out a message that overprescribing antibiotics is a big problem.
The BBC’s so-called “investigation” was picked up by the Telegraph and the Independent. Both these media outlets reported that the BBC had looked at “17 UK-based pharmacies” – and that’s another thing. If the real story is that antibiotics are being prescribed when they shouldn’t be, it’s the online doctors who prescribe them who should be in the frame. Instead, it’s pharmacies that get the blame.
I want my licence fee back.
David Reissner is senior healthcare partner at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys LLP (firstname.lastname@example.org)