Online pharmacy, e-pharmacy, internet pharmacy, mail-order pharmacy, or virtual pharmacy are interchangeable terms for the same type of business. They’re all pharmacies that operate over the internet and send medication and prescription drugs through shipping companies and the mail system.

Types of Online Pharmacies

  • Pharmacy benefit managers, which function as large administrators of prescription drug plans for corporate businesses.  
  • Online pharmacies such as UK Meds, that are based in the same country as the person who is ordering.
  • Legitimate internet pharmacies that are based in a different country than where the person ordering is located. When ordering from these pharmacies, you have to be aware that they follow their country’s regulations and their licensing process is dictated by their country.
  • Unethical and illegal internet pharmacies that display lies about their certifications, procedures, products, and home country. The product that they sell could be counterfeit or expired.

Home Delivery

One reason that people love the idea of online pharmacies is the convenience. Because traditional pharmacies are stationary, they don’t have that desired convenience. There are admittedly some benefits. For instance, traditional stationary pharmacies do have distribution systems that are controlled by the manufacturer. Plus, there’s a guarantee that good distribution and validation practices are met. Virtual pharmacies can’t guarantee this type of oversight, although many of them take steps to ensure safe doorstep delivery.

Additionally, shipping prescription drugs through parcel post and the mail can be a concern for medication that is temperature-sensitive. Shipping conditions that are out of the control of the company can have the drug experiencing low and high temperatures out of the recommended storage conditions for it. This could be a problem when it gets too cold in the winter months and too hot during the summer.

However, a majority of online pharmacies dedicated to meeting their customers’ needs have thought of these issues and have taken steps to ensure the temperature is less of an issue. For example, some offer shipment through couriers or express mail. These options often deliver to your door and reduce transit time. Many have also opted for insulated shipping containers, which control the drug temperature and reduce the risks to the drug’s efficacy and safety.

Risks and Concerns

  • Virtual pharmacies that practice unethical methods or are illegal often send out counterfeit, outdated, or substituted pharmaceuticals.
  • These online pharmacies that aren’t licensed properly or at all will sometimes claim to be located in a country that they are not. A study on drug shipments has shown that many pharmacies claiming to be located in Canada actually were based in several different countries, and the medication they sold was often bogus.
  • E-pharmacies can’t stop children or minors from ordering controlled substances without the supervision of their parents.
  • People often express concerns over other risks such as the potential lack of confidentiality, the inability to check for drug interactions, and improper packaging.

Other Things to Consider About Online Pharmacies

In a few ways, a legitimate virtual pharmacy that delivers your drugs through the mail is similar to a community pharmacy. A big difference is the process through which the medication is requested and then received. More and more consumers are considering this way to be more convenient than going to a drugstore in their community, much like how some people prefer to order other goods online rather than going to a shop.

Community pharmacies also ensure that you have a prescription before giving you the medication, but some online pharmacies offer prescription drugs without requiring a person to have a pre-written prescription. Some people seek out these illegal online pharmacies to avoid visiting their doctor. Others know that their doctors are unwilling to prescribe a medication, so they seek out these sites. People also might be unwilling to meet the expensive cost of prescription medicine, so they turn to e-pharmacies to save some money.

The online pharmacies that allow for people to buy medication without doctor review or a prescription are often criticised. These practices are seen as unethical and potentially dangerous. Many people view that doctors are the only professionals who can reliably assess the risk-benefit ratio, the suitability of the medication for your needs, and assess contraindications. Pharmacies that offer drugs without a prescription or don’t have supervision or doctor review are often illegal and often supply counterfeits that could be dangerous or ineffective.

Fortunately, there are reputable and legitimate virtual pharmacies that employ their own in-house doctor to review the pharmaceuticals that are requested and will write a prescription accordingly.

International Consumers

Those who choose to purchase medication from abroad for whatever reason should take precautions like they would if they were buying in their own country. There will be some international pharmacies that will require a prescription, while some will not. Most online pharmacies will ask the customer to fill out a questionnaire about their health when they order.

The drugs that are available at legitimate online pharmacies come from legitimate sources. Many medications are produced by manufacturers that are well-known, such as Roche, Wyeth, and Pfizer along with popular generic drug producers like Ranbaxy and Cipla in India and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries in Israel.

Despite the product that is offered at legitimate pharmacies, it’s still difficult for patients to tell whether a virtual pharmacy is safe or not. The medicine advertised on illegal online pharmacies offer no guarantee on the source, identity, or history of the medicine they’re selling, and these pharmacies can lie and falsely state that it was manufactured by one of the popular sources.

Is Buying Medicine Online a Good Idea?

While there are certain risks involved with buying prescription online, whether or not it’s right for you is ultimately up to you. It can serve to be an easy, convenient, and more affordable option to going and picking drugs up at a traditional pharmacy. However, those who are planning on buying drugs online have to be smart about it.

Research the online pharmacy that you’re interested in, make sure that their business practices are ethical, and trust your gut. Buying medicine from online pharmacies can be the best decision you’ve made or the worst; it’s all up to you.

About Adam FoxDr Adam Fox is one of only a handful of UK doctors with recognised higher specialist training in Paediatric Allergy. He is a consultant and joint clinical lead at Guy's & St Thomas' Hospitals – the UK's largest specialist children's allergy centre. He has extensive experience in the management of food allergy, eczema, asthma, rhinitis (hayfever) and conjunctivitis as well as drug and insect sting allergy.

He also runs the largest allergen desensitisation programme in the UK and is actively involved in cutting edge research in desensitisation, asthma prevention and food allergy. Adam was included in The Times magazine list of Britain’s 100 Top Children’s Doctors (2012) and is listed in Tatler’s 2013 Guide as one of the UK’s Top 250 Specialists. He was awarded 'Paediatric Allergist of the Year' (2007) by Allergy UK. He is secretary of the British Society of Allergy & Clinical Immunology and lectures widely nationally and internationally.
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