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Are you tempted by the apparent convenience of buying health products online? You could be taking a deadly gamble...

Sales of online health products are soaring. Boosted by the convenience of buying a remedy at the click of a mouse, there’s now a growing trend towards logging on to purchase even prescription medicines – often via a virtual consultation with an online GP.

 
A Bitter Pill?

A Bitter Pill?

Slimming pills, Viagra, anti-viral ’flu drugs and antidepressants – you name it and you can probably buy it by browsing the web. But this trend is a convenience too far, say worried doctors at the British Medical Association (BMA), leaving consumers at risk of misdiagnosis, serious side-effects, fake pills and lethal interactions between medicines.

Medics’ concerns have been highlighted by reports showing the terrible health risks faced by the increasing number of women now buying diet pills online.

Michelle Rumsey, 46, from Suffolk, is one of several worrying cases reported recently. For many years she took ephedrine – a stimulant that speeds up the heart and nervous system and is regularly found in over-the-counter cold and ’flu remedies – which she had bought on the internet after reading on a chat forum that it could help you lose weight. The drug triggered a heart weakness that means her life expectancy is now just 10 years.

Lack of regulation

According to Dr George Rae of the BMA, there are potentially serious risks of buying any medication on the internet. ‘It’s inherently dangerous. You have no way of checking the safety, quality or effectiveness of the medicine you’re buying,’ he says.

You have no way of checking the safety, quality or effectiveness of the medicine you’re buying

You have no way of checking the safety, quality or effectiveness of the medicine you’re buying

In recent years, there’s been a proliferation of e-pharmacies selling medicines online. Many of these websites are based outside the UK so are not regulated by the UK authorities that control the quality of medicines. It’s not illegal to buy medicines online – but you are taking a huge risk with your health.

Dr Saad Shakir, director of the Drug Safety Research Unit, warns that there are many e-pharmacies who will diagnose and prescribe drugs after an online consultation with a virtual GP. ‘They don’t know you and don’t have your medical history – any allergies, kidney or liver problems, for example – and this could lead to inappropriate drug prescriptions,’ he says.

Self-diagnosing and describing symptoms to a virtual doctor could also mean you’re missing vital signs that your own health professional would spot. You may not be alerted to potentially dangerous interactions with other medicines you’re taking, either.

Monitoring the situation

People shop online for ‘lifestyle’ drugs, such as slimming pills, that they couldn’t get their own doctor to prescribe, says Dr Shakir. ‘If you’re size 10, your doctor won’t prescribe pills to help you slim down to a size 8, but you might be able to buy them online – and you could seriously risk your health by taking them.’

A Department of Health working party on the sale and supply of medicines in the UK has also been set up to determine the best, legal way to buy medicines online.

A Department of Health working party on the sale and supply of medicines in the UK has also been set up to determine the best, legal way to buy medicines online.

The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) continually monitors these sites. ‘Spot checks are made to see if they are based in the UK. If so, we can take action and a number of prosecutions have taken place. We refer overseas sites to the appropriate regulatory body in that country,’ says a spokesperson.

A Department of Health working party on the sale and supply of medicines in the UK has also been set up to determine the best, legal way to buy medicines online.

‘At present, there’s no substitute for a consultation with your own doctor, nurse practitioner or pharmacist,’ says Dr Rae.

How to shop online safely

Ideally see a pharmacist, doctor or nurse in person rather than shop online. If you still want to buy online, beware, because there are unscrupulous overseas-based commercial sites that will sell you fake or inappropriate drugs over the internet. To help the public identify legally registered online pharmacies, the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) now operates an internet pharmacy logo. Sites with this logo are selling safe and genuine medicines online. Clicking the logo also provides a direct link to the GPhC website, where you can check the registration details of both the pharmacy and the pharmacist behind the website. For more details, see pharmacyregulation.org.

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