New guidelines have been issued to online pharmacies in a bid to “manage risk” and protect patients.

The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPC) issued guidance in four key areas: making sure medicines are clinically appropriate; further safeguards for certain categories of prescription medicine; transparency and patient choice; and regulatory oversight.

Duncan Rudkin, chief executive of the GPC said online services need to be “safe and effective” for patients.

“But providing pharmacy services online carries particular risks which need to be successfully managed,” he added.

“People can be put at serious risk if they are able to obtain medicines that are not appropriate for them. We are now putting in place this updated guidance with further safeguards to protect people.”

Research commissioned by the GPC found that 25% of people are likely to use online pharmacies, but 50% of those unlikely to do so have concerns about their safety.

The new guidance is based on feedback from 800 patients and people working in the sector to proposals published last year.

“I would strongly urge patients and the public wanting to obtain medicines online to only use online pharmacies registered with us, to protect their health,” Rudkin said.

“These pharmacies have to meet our standards and follow this guidance, so they provide safe and effective services, and we will be inspecting pharmacies to make sure this is the case.”

Online pharmacies will have to ensure:

Making sure medicines are clinically appropriate for patients: 

  • there are robust processes in place to carry out identity checks on people obtaining medicines
  • the pharmacy team can identify requests for medicines that are inappropriate, including being able to identify multiple orders to the same address or orders using the same payment details
  • the pharmacy websites do not allow a patient to choose a prescription-only medicine and its quantity before there has been an appropriate consultation with a prescriber

Further safeguards for certain categories of these prescription only medicines:

  • antimicrobials (antibiotics)
  • medicines liable to abuse, overuse or misuse, or where there is a risk of addiction and ongoing monitoring is important. For example, opiates, sedatives, laxatives, pregabalin and gabapentin
  • medicines that require ongoing monitoring or management. For example, those used to treat diabetes, asthma, epilepsy and mental health conditions
  • non-surgical cosmetic medicinal products, such as Botox

These safeguards include making sure the prescriber proactively shares all relevant information about the prescription with their GP after seeking the patient’s consent.

Transparency and patient choice:

Pharmacy owners will have to supply more details about where the service and health professionals involved in prescribing and supplying the medicine are based and how they are regulated.

This is so people have enough information to make an informed decision about using the service and can raise concerns about the service if they need to.

Regulatory oversight:

Pharmacy owners working with prescribers or prescribing services operating outside the UK must take steps to successfully manage the additional risks that this may create, including assuring themselves that the prescriber is working within national prescribing guidelines for the UK.

The GMC is also working with other regulators and other stakeholders to improve quality of care for patients, including consulting on new guidance for pharmacist prescribers when prescribing remotely.