Online pharmacy is a fast-growing industry due to technological advancements and changes in society. Internet pharmacies deliver essential services with no face-to-face contact between patients and pharmacy staff. By providing medicines that patients take daily, online businesses may decrease the high workload of GP surgeries, easing the burden on the NHS.
With the ever-growing need to make healthcare easily accessible, distance-selling pharmacies are likely to grow in importance over the coming years. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves how we can ensure that online dispensing is safe enough for our patients.
Last April the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) issued guidance for distance-selling pharmacies, which should have decreased the risks associated with dispensing prescription medicines online. Even though they gave more insight into safe dispensing online, many owners of online pharmacies found them to be too generic in certain aspects. For example, the guidelines say antibiotics require safeguards to ensure they are appropriate for a patient but the GPhC didn’t provide more specific insight on how to mitigate this risk effectively.
Following the publication of the guidance, pharmacists and contractors working with distance-selling pharmacies were left with many questions unanswered and without a clear vision of the GPhC’s expectations for providing a safe medical service online. Therefore, we are hoping for more detailed guidance in the near future to eliminate these concerns.
Providing pharmacy services online carries risks as the goods being provided are not regular commerce. The biggest disadvantage is the lack of contact with the patient, and the absence of any medical history.
A possible solution to this is linking online dispensing with access to patient medication records via the NHS, something the NHS and GPhC should strongly consider. Ultimately, this could increase the safety of services provided by online pharmacies.
If online pharmacies could access the summary care record, the safety of dispensing medication online would improve. It could also provide extra funds for NHS, if there was a fee to access the database. This database would provide a much clearer picture of the patient’s health, therefore decreasing the chance of errors, eliminating bias that relies on the patient’s memory, and increasing the safety of dispensing medication online.
Another option to consider would be to create a network of online pharmacies managed by the GPhC so they could all share information about medicines supplied online to patients. This could increase safety by eliminating cases where patients buy medications from multiple online pharmacies that might not be safe or appropriate for them, or order medication without being reviewed by their GP.
In a future where these steps are possible, the patient would not only be cared for in a seamless manner, but they would be confident that their online service is equivalent to their face-to-face pharmacy experience.
Jana Abelovská is the superintendent pharmacist at Click Pharmacy.