The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) is consulting on whether it should crack down on regulating online pharmacies following concerns about how easy it is to buy certain medicines.

The consultation comes as the regulator is ‘increasingly concerned’ about the way some services undermine the existing safeguards that protect patients from accessing medicines that are not clinically appropriate for them.

The GPhC published a discussion paper today (26 June) seeking views on new measures online pharmacies could implement to protect people purchasing certain medicines online including opiates, antibiotics, asthma inhalers and Botox.

It is also proposing that certain medicines should not be available online unless further safety checks – such as contacting the patient’s GP – are made.

New safeguards

Under the proposals, the GPhC suggests:

  • Pharmacy owners who work with non-UK based prescribers should show how they manage potential risks and make sure the prescribers follow UK prescribing guidelines as well as their own national legislation and guidance
  • Patients should be given enough information about the clinical service to make informed decisions when ordering medicines online
  • Certain medicines should be withdrawn from the online market when it is not possible to certify they are clinically suitable for the patient

The paper also looks at whether it is appropriate for pharmacy websites to allow patients to choose prescription-only medicines and their quantity before having a consultation with a prescriber.

The regulator is also concerned that as some websites only require patients to answer a questionnaire before the prescriber approves a medicine, they might learn what precise answers to give in order to get the medicine sought.

‘Not ordinary items’

GPhC chief executive Duncan Rudkin said: ‘Medicines are not ordinary items of commerce and must not be treated as such.

‘Regulating healthcare services on the internet is complex, with different organisations and agencies responsible for different parts of the service.

‘We want to play our part in strengthening the safeguards in place for patients and the public through the guidance we set for pharmacy owners and through our inspections of online pharmacy services.

‘We are also working closely with other regulators in Great Britain involved in regulating online prescribing services to make sure patients are protected at each stage.’

The consultation runs until 21 August.