The Department of Health have announced that solely internet-based pharmacies may soon be allowed to open in the UK and process prescriptions.

A paper published by the DH regarding deregulation of pharmacy services in the UK promises an exemption to mail-order or internet-based pharmacies as long as “such pharmacies provide a fully professional service within the provisions of the new contractual framework." Until now, no internet pharmacy could open unless it had a ‘bricks-and-mortar’ presence.

However, any application for an internet-based pharmacy would be “rejected administratively … which does not undertake to provide the required ‘essential’ pharmaceutical services under the proposed new contractual framework for community pharmacy."

The paper concludes a series of recommendations and negotiations between the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), the DH and the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), which represents pharmacy contractors in England and Wales, about the abolition of industry restrictions.

A spokesperson for the DH told E-Health Insider that the exact form which internet pharmacies will take is still “tied up with contractual negotiations at the moment” but that the DH, rather than the website’s local PCTs, would approve each individual website. The definition and policing of a “fully professional service" was also still being decided, as was how patient prescriptions could be submitted.

The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), which continues to be in talks with the DH about the issue, had published a response last November to the DH’s initial proposal to reform the regulations. According to the PSNC, any wholly mail-order or internet-based pharmacy services “should be required to provide a full pharmaceutical service as far as possible”, and that “websites that are used to promote internet pharmacies should be required to demonstrate some form of accreditation."

"To ensure parity, mail-order and internet-based pharmacies should be required to match the same interpretation of ‘reasonable promptness’ as ‘bricks and mortar’ pharmacies, since the timely pharmaceutical service to the public would otherwise be reduced.

“For example, in response to an electronic prescription, medicines should be despatched on the same say for all orders received by 17.30 hours."

It is possible that primary legislation will need to be passed to allow internet-only pharmacies to trade, as under the Medicines Act 1968 all pharmacies must be open to the public for the sale and supply of medicines. This could be interpreted narrowly as solely referring to physical, rather than virtual availability.

The OFT published its initial report, “The control of entry regulations and retail pharmacy services in the UK”, in January 2003, which called for the abolition of “control of entry" restrictions on NHS pharmacy applications. The DH responded broadly welcoming the ideas in July 2003, and issued a consultation document the following month, as well as setting up an expert advisory group (The Advisory Group on the Reform of the NHS (Pharmaceutical Services) Regulations 1992). The DH’s implementation document came after submissions of the group’s report and discussions with the pharmacy industry.