Buying prescription and non-prescription medications online and any other medical product or device could really be a dangerous business. Why? Because we could actually put our health and even our life at risk. At this time there are thousands of Web sites, most of them based abroad, offering an amazing number of these products, generally at attractive low prices.
If we consider only those sites offering prescription, brand-name medications, it is difficult to find out if they are legitimate and that their products are authentic. This is because it is relatively easy to design and install a site that would look professional, offering “secure transactions,” asking for credit card and other sensitive personal financial information.
What are the actual risks of making purchases from illegal sites? Keeping in mind that at this time there are no controls whatsoever for most of them, there are several risks: for instance, buying counterfeit products, or contaminated medications from unscrupulous individuals who may actually make tablets, capsules, or other dispensing means with flour, talc, dirt, etc., and sell them as legitimate medications. Or they may package medications, but at a very low or high dosage, that could be ineffective or cause serious health problems. Purchasing medications from foreign-based sites is not only risky but could also be against federal law.
In the U.S., there are several well-known, reputable, licensed online pharmacies that sell legitimate products. They also offer telephone support and consultations with licensed pharmacists.
Another problem we may encounter online is related to those Web sites that offer a “consultation” with a doctor who, after reviewing a brief questionnaire, would actually authorize the online sale of prescription medications. This practice is not only unethical, it may be illegal—for several reasons, besides the fact that it defies common sense: how can even a licensed physician prescribe a medication without examining, or even seeing, a patient?
We would also be wise to avoid those Web sites (there are thousands!) that offer bogus “amazing and “miracle” cures and treatments for cancer, impotence, and many other illnesses. They generally justify their offerings and prices on what they define as “persecution” or “conspiracy” by the medical establishment to keep them from “reaching the public.”
Unfortunately, there are many of these fraudulent sites setup by certain health care professionals who have associated themselves with food supplements merchants in order to sell vitamins, herbs, and other dubious preparations that may be useless, harmful, or even fatal, which is the case with Ephedra, recently banned by the FDA.
Summary: talk to your family physician in order to obtain any prescription medication and take only those medications prescribed by her/him. Always ask your doctor about any special instructions regarding the medications you are taking or newly prescribed ones.
If you decide to buy medications online, buy only from U.S.-based Web sites and do it only from sites that require prescriptions from a physician and that also verify each prescription before dispensing the medication. A written verification policy is usually posted on the Web site.
Make sure that the site is a licensed pharmacy in good standing in your state. Check with your state board of pharmacy or with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (www.nabp.net). Some sites display the NABP VIPPS or Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites seal, an assurance that such sites are meeting all applicable state and federal requirements. Use sites that provide convenient access to a licensed pharmacist who can answer your questions; look for easy to find and understand privacy and security policies. Always check for customer service policies.
Use common sense when purchasing prescription medications online; apply the same standards you would use for any place of business when looking for a reputable pharmacy site. If you suspect that a site is not a licensed pharmacy, do not buy from it.
Do not buy online from Web sites that offer to prescribe a medicine for the first time without a physical exam by your doctor or that sell controlled medications without a prescription and also not FDA approved.
Also, do not provide any personally identifiable information (credit card or social security number and health history) unless you are confident that the site will protect them. Make sure the site does not share your information with others without your permission.
Stay away from Web sites that include undocumented case histories claiming “miracle” or “amazing” medical results and do not buy from Web sites that offer to prescribe a medicine for the first time without a physical exam by your doctor or that sells medications without a prescription.
By Julie M. Pearson, MD