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Buying Medicines Online: It's Convenient and Private, but Beware of 'Rogue Sites'

Man working on laptop at kitchen table.The scene is becoming increasingly common in the United States: Consumers are replacing a trip to the corner pharmacy with a click onto the Internet. This is where they find hundreds of websites selling prescription medicines and other health products.

Many of these are lawful enterprises that genuinely offer convenience, privacy, and the safeguards of traditional procedures for prescribing medicines. For the most part, consumers can use these services with the same confidence they have in their neighborhood pharmacist. Some of these sites are familiar large pharmacy chains. Others are local "mom and pop" pharmacies, set up to serve their customers electronically.

But consumers must be suspicious of people who are using the Internet as an outlet for products or practices that are illegal in the offline world. These rogue sites sell unapproved products, or—if they deal in approved ones—often sidestep established procedures meant to protect consumers. For example, some sites require customers to fill out only a questionnaire before ordering prescription medicines, bypassing any face-to-face interaction with a healthcare professional.

Skirting the system this way sets the stage for problems. This includes dangerous medicine interactions and harm from contaminated, counterfeit, or outdated medicines.

A brave, new world

For some people, buying prescription medicines online offers advantages not available from a local pharmacy including:

  • Greater availability of medicines for people confined to their homes, or for those who live far from the pharmacy

  • The ease of being able to compare many sites to find the best prices and products

  • Greater convenience and access to a wide variety of products

  • Easier access to written product information, and references to sources other than what you would typically find in traditional storefront pharmacies

  • The ability for consumers to order products and talk with a pharmacist in the privacy of their homes.

Internet medicine shopping also claims to save consumers money. In some cases, this is true.

Consumers seeking health products online can find dozens of sites that FDA officials say are legally questionable. A number of them specialize in providing medicines, such as sildenafil citrate for erectile dysfunction, the baldness therapy finasteride, or the weight-loss treatment orlistat. Others, based in foreign countries, promise to deliver prescription medicines at a much cheaper price than their cost in one's own country. These medicines may be different from those approved in the United States or may be past their expiration dates. Still other sites make false health claims or blatantly advertise that a customer can buy medicines with no prescription. Online medicine sites can now be located in nearly any state or country having phone lines.

Overseeing online sales

Whether new legislation will improve oversight of online pharmacies remains to be seen. State medical boards regulate medical practice, while state pharmacy boards oversee pharmacy practice. The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission make sure that medicine sellers make legal, scientifically proven claims for their products. Numerous other agencies, such as the U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Postal Service enforce laws regarding the shipment of medicine products.

The FDA regulates the safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing of pharmaceutical medicines, as well as a part of the prescribing process.

Regulating Internet sales of health products is still fairly new. Yet the FDA has successfully taken action in the past against illegal sites.

How online sales work

In general, legitimate online pharmacies operate this way:

  • Users open an account with the pharmacy and submit credit and insurance information. The pharmacy is licensed to sell prescription medicines by the state in which it operates and in those states to which it sells, if an out-of-state license is needed.

  • After establishing an account, users must submit a valid prescription. Healthcare providers can call it in, or users can deliver it to the pharmacy by fax or mail.

  • Some online pharmacies send products from a central spot. Others allow users to pick the prescription up at a local pharmacy. Prescriptions usually are delivered quickly, often with no shipping charge. For an extra fee, many sites will deliver overnight.

  • Sites typically have a mechanism for users to ask questions of the pharmacist, either through email or a toll-free number.

What consumers can do

With hundreds of medicine-dispensing websites in business, how can consumers tell which sites are legitimate ones? This is especially hard when it's very easy to set up a site that is professional looking and promises deep discounts or a minimum of hassles.

The FDA offers these tips to consumers who buy health products online:

  • Check with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy to determine if the site is a licensed pharmacy in good standing. The NABP can be reached at (847) 391-4406 or go to its website.

  • Don't buy from sites that offer to prescribe a prescription medicine for the first time without a physical exam, sell a prescription medicine without a prescription, or sell medicines not approved by FDA.

  • Don't do business with sites that do not provide access to a registered pharmacist to answer questions.

  • Avoid sites that do not identify with whom you are dealing. Do not provide a U.S. address and phone number to contact if there's a problem.

  • Beware of sites that advertise a "new cure" for a serious disorder or a quick cure-all for a wide range of ailments.

  • Be careful of sites that use impressive-sounding terminology to disguise a lack of good science. Also, watch out for those that claim the government, the medical profession, or research scientists have conspired to suppress a product.

  • Steer clear of sites that include undocumented case histories claiming "amazing" results.

  • Talk to your healthcare professional before using any medicine for the first time.

If you suspect a site is illegal, you can report it to the FDA on its website.  

Online Medical Reviewer: Gersten, Todd, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Image reviewed by StayWell art team.
Online Medical Reviewer: Sather, Rita, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 1/5/2016
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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