This comment accompanies the article Online pharmacies: buyer beware.

While the power of the internet has proved a terrific boon for consumers seeking bargains and otherwise inaccessible products, pharmacy is one online sector where the benefits are mixed. The uninitiated consumer can encounter both health and financial hazards.

From a consumer’s point of view, online pharmacies seem to offer much potential value, although not necessarily on price. For housebound patients, the option of ordering medication from home and having it delivered to the door is obvious. For those living in remote areas, and consumers who are short of time and for whom reaching the pharmacy is difficult, ordering online has obvious advantages. There are also those seeking personal products who prefer anonymity.

The rewards and risks of online pharmacy shopping present a significant issue for consumer health. Two national regulatory authorities have issued detailed warnings about online pharmacies, but stopping overseas online pharmacy scams is no simple task.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission states there are legitimate online pharmacies that list full contact details and require valid prescriptions. However, it warns there are scams and spam emails offering medicines at very cheap prices, or without the need for prescriptions, that can cause financial and health problems.

Questions surrounding international sites selling sildenafil and other products without prescription, contrary to Australian law, reflect the difficulty of ensuring the safety of overseas online pharmacies.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration also warns consumers to be cautious, and points to the risk of unexpected and potentially serious adverse reactions. Given the potential for health risks for the unwary, it is concerning that there are no regulatory reviews of pharmacy sites. There is therefore a need for ongoing education by authorities on the risks of online pharmacies.

Wherever possible it is preferable for consumers to obtain their prescription medicines at a traditional pharmacy, particularly when the prescription is for a new drug or for a serious condition. Even for over-the-counter products, it is wise to buy from a pharmacy to hear of any safety advice first-hand.

The reality is that, for an increasing number of people, given population ageing and the rise in chronic illness, online pharmacies will likely become an ever more favoured option. In Australia the online market is already dominated by well-known, presumably safe, Australian pharmacy chains.

The proliferation of online pharmacy prescription services, and now online medical consultation services, points to another dilemma that seems set to become more prevalent. That is, the growing number of remote health assessments made possible by internet and telehealth where the doctor, pharmacist or other practitioner is not seeing the patient in person. It seems that circumstances, including time and commercial pressures, are combining to make these virtual consultations ever more frequent.

The question for consumers and practitioners is how do we ensure that the overall result of the shift to virtual consultations and prescriptions will benefit our health?

Leanne Wells

Chief executive officer, Consumer Health Forum of Australia