With the high cost of prescription
drugs, more consumers are turning to the Internet to cut expenses. But what you
order on the Web isn't always what you get.
Any outfit can put up a Web site and call itself an
Internet pharmacy. But it's not called the World Wide Web for nothing.
Shady operators in third world countries represent themselves as
legitimate pharmacies and, are not only ripping off consumers, but
in some cases endangering their health as well.
Even worse, some Internet pharmacies are fueling drug addiction.
The General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, conducted
a study on Internet pharmacies in June 2004 and was able to purchase restricted
narcotics from several online pharmacies without a prescription.
"There are Internet pharmacies out there that
aren't licensed to sell drugs, and they do it for profit because
there is very little chance that they will get caught," says
Mike Patton, a licensed pharmacist who is the interim executive
director of the Illinois Pharmacists Association. "It is a
major shortcoming in our society that there isn't real regulatory
control of who sells what over the Internet."
Despite these issues, there are legitimate pharmacies on the Internet.
The Internet is a tool. Used wisely, it can help you pay less for
drugs that are genuine and come from a legitimate outlet.
Types of online pharmacies
The rapidly growing online pharmaceutical industry isn't dominated
by one business model or one retailer. Instead, online pharmacies
can be classified in several different ways, says Gabriel Levitt,
vice president for research at PharmacyChecker.com,
a site that rates online pharmacies.
Basic type. Not all online pharmacies actually operate pharmacies
that dispense drugs. Some are what PharmacyChecker.com describes
as "pharmaceutical intermediaries." These companies don't
actually operate their own pharmacy, but fill orders through third-party
pharmacies. Some pharmacies specialize in mail orders and Internet
orders only, while others are extensions of brick-and-mortar stores
Prescriptions. In terms of prescription requirements,
online pharmacies can be divided into three categories:
- Prescription required:
You must have a prescription from your doctor or medical provider
to obtain nonover-the-counter medication.
- Remote prescription:
You are required to fill out a questionnaire or form detailing
your medical symptoms, and doctors affiliated with the pharmacy
will examine the information and decide whether to prescribe medication.
- No prescription required:
You can order prescription medication without a prescription or
a consultation. This practice is illegal in the United States.
Location. It's important to know where a pharmacy is located before
entrusting your health to it. Just because a pharmacy states that
it is located in a particular country doesn't prove that it is.
Albert Wertheimer, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Health
Services Research at the Temple University School of Pharmacy, says,
"It's impossible to tell where an Internet pharmacy is actually
located, and if it isn't in the U.S., government inspections, regulation
and testing in most other countries is pitiful."