Evolving safety role for pharmacists as consumers go online

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As interest in buying medicines online grows, consumers will need to be more cautious than ever about where they buy their drugs, NPS MedicineWise’ Lynn Weekes warns – which means an evolving role for pharmacists.

Last month, the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP Global) and the US’ Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (CSIP), and the National Consumers League (NCL) launched a new website, aimed at providing information to consumers, pharmacists, doctors and others about the risks of buying medicines online.

According to Drug Topics, the cost of drugs for chronic conditions like cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and hepatitis C is high in the US and as a result many people, seniors in particular, are seeking lower-cost drugs on the Internet.

In May, Dr Conor Hensey from the Department of General Medicines at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne wrote in MJA InSight that Australia needs to set up a “safe list” of online pharmacies to protect consumers.

Lyn Weekes told the AJP that with growing interest in online pharmacy startups such as Capsule internationally, consumers may need help understanding how to shop safely for medicines online.

“Millennials, and all of us really, are doing a lot more shopping online, and so of course people will want to get their medicines online too,” she says.

“I don’t think that means we’ll get rid of pharmacies, but there could be good opportunities for pharmacists to be on the phone, on the internet, even email, giving the advice you would in person.

“I think there’ll be new models for how we involve the pharmacist – not involving them would be taking out that great safety net pharmacists provide, but in the future the retail model could be online.

“If so, caution will be needed.”

In the meantime, some consumers still knowingly purchase from international websites, putting themselves at risk.

“The main risk, when you purchase from an international online pharmacy – assuming you know it’s international – is that you don’t know who’s made the medicine, or what regulations it’s been made under,” Dr Weekes told the AJP.

“In Australia we have a really good regulatory system and so we’re really sure what’s in medicines. I think in some ways this makes us complacent: in many other countries the regulatory system won’t be as strong, and you can’t be as sure what the medicine contains.”

Drugs do not necessarily have to be counterfeit to pose a risk due to lower regulatory standards: complementary medicines sourced from the US can be problematic, for example.

“Complementary medicines aren’t regulated in the US: the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t look after them at all,” Dr Weekes says. “Our system here is much stronger for complementary medicines; that’s the greatest risk from buying from US sites.

“Counterfeit medicines are much more common in Asia.”

Dr Weekes says that hopefully in the future, Australia will have a safe list as suggested by Dr Hensey, similar to systems in the US and Europe.

“For now, the main thing pharmacists can do is point out those risks, to ensure people do understand that they might not be getting what they think they’re getting when they order internationally online,” she says.

“You could invite them to bring in their medicines to get a look at them. Be proactive – and understand that rather than saying ‘don’t do it,’ they may have already bought from overseas and be taking the medicine.

“Engage people in a conversation rather than wagging the finger – it’s really important to keep that relationship so they’ll keep talking to you about health issues in the future.”

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