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Buying prescriptions online: a safe bet?

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, a site that rates online pharmacies.

Basic type. Not all online pharmacies actually operate pharmacies that dispense drugs. Some are what 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 and chains.

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."

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