Are NHS online pharmacies safe?

11 Jan 2022
Navin Khosla medical writer
Navin Khosla
Medical Writer
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The way medicines are supplied has taken on a new dimension with the development of online pharmacy services. Consumer habits have changed partly due to the COVID pandemic and using online pharmacies provides convenience alongside discretion for managing certain embarrassing conditions. Some sites also offer prescriber services, where you have an online doctor consultation and a prescription is then sent to a pharmacy for dispensing.

It is something that appeals to patients and is an increasingly common way to access medicines and health services. However, all services providing medicines must ensure patient safety and should have the necessary accreditations. Read on to find out what you should look out for to recognise legitimate online pharmacies and avoid illegal online pharmacies.

Three regulatory bodies

There are three regulatory bodies to look out for that are regarded as the seal of approval for online pharmacies: CQC (Care Quality Commission) regulated, GphC (General Pharmaceutical Council) approved, and MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency) registered.

CQC (Care Quality Commission) regulated

The CQC regulation is one of the most important accreditations that a pharmacy can have because it confirms it is a pharmacy provider with the highest compliance and standards. Before using an online pharmacy check that they appear on the CQC register. A CQC inspection and rating gives you confidence that the pharmacy has adequate insurance, operates with fully qualified healthcare professionals, and meets the compulsory clinical and regulatory standards to function in the UK.

Here at NowPatient, we are proud to announce that we were the UK’s first digital health provider to be recognised for a safe and quality service with no recommendations for improvement by the CQC. We also have been given a thumbs up from the NHS by placing our service in the NHS digital Library, endorsing its use.

GPhC (General Pharmaceutical Council) approved

All pharmacies and internet pharmacies in Great Britain must be accredited by the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC). Their logo is a green registered pharmacy icon and should be displayed on online pharmacy websites to identify them as legitimate online pharmacies. This logo gives you the assurance you are buying safe and genuine medicines online. All GPhC logos show a green cross, with the words “Registered Pharmacy” across it and a registration number.

It is important to note displaying this logo is only voluntary therefore checking the GPhC register before using a pharmacy is advised. You can also go to (NHS find a pharmacy link) and search for a pharmacy using your location.

You can also access our most recent report from the GPhC by following the link below.

https://inspections.pharmacyregulation.org/pharmacy/detail/ info health-pharmacy-1036487

The Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA)

The MHRA is an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care that governs the safety, quality, and efficacy of medicines and medical devices in the UK. Before the 1st of January 2021, the MHRA required online pharmacies to display the Distance Selling Logo in Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland) on their web page. This was used to help members of the public identify websites selling medicines as legitimate.

From 1 January 2021, the EU distance-selling logo for the online sales of medicines to the public will only be used in Northern Ireland. For Great Britain, the MHRA will be considering an alternative to the use of the Distance Selling Logo in the future. However, they still have the power to prosecute those who manufacture and distribute counterfeit products illegally in the UK.

What’s the difference between a community pharmacy and an online pharmacy?

A community pharmacy is what you would consider your local pharmacy. It is also known as a retail pharmacy and can also be described as a brick-and-mortar pharmacy. It is a setting where a healthcare professional i.e. a pharmacist is present and the public can access prescription medicines and other healthcare services in person. Community pharmacies can still provide online services alongside operating their store.

An online pharmacy sometimes called an internet pharmacy works solely online. They operate through a website or app where you can order NHS prescriptions online.
Now Patient connects directly with GPs through the NHS network. This means your medication records are ‘accessed’ from the NHS and will be viewable on the App. Using the App, you will be able to place orders for the medications you require. This request is sent directly to your GP practice. When approved, the prescription is electronically sent via the Electronic Prescription Service (EPS) from a GP or another healthcare professional to Now Patient, and it can be safely dispensed and delivered by us. Some of the features of using an online pharmacy such as Now Patient include:

  • Connect to your GP practice
  • View past/upcoming appointments
  • Book appointments
  • View current medication
  • Order repeat prescriptions

Now Patient allows with your consent to add a loved one or a carer to the service to manage your medications. This can be useful for elderly relatives or young children, who would otherwise find it difficult to manage their medication requests and supplies.

Now patients can also offer live video consultations with our pharmacists. This can be useful for:

  • General medical advice
  • Advice on medication
  • Advice on what to do if you miss a dose of your medication
  • Advice on what to do if you suffer from side effects of your medication
  • Stop smoking advice
  • Asthma inhaler use and advice
  • Weight management advice
  • Accessing NHS services like New Medicine Service helps patients and saves the NHS money in primary care.

Some simple checks to choose a safe online pharmacy

  • Does the site belong to a registered UK-based pharmacy? If not, there is no likelihood of a healthcare professional making checks
  • Can you call up and speak to a licensed pharmacist?
  • Is the GPHC logo visible on the site?
  • Does the registered pharmacy link work?
  • Are they offering prescription-only medicines without a prescription? This type of medication can only be supplied after a consultation with a doctor
  • Check for secure payment options. A small padlock in the address bar confirms the information is encrypted
  • Check reviews to spot a scam online pharmacy
  • Does the website look genuine? Correct spelling and grammar?

The risk of using unregulated websites for medicines includes receiving an inferior product with none to few active ingredients, the medicine may have serious side effects or may be toxic. Always be vigilant when using online pharmacies. You should rightly expect all online pharmacy services to focus on patient safety and deliver a service of high quality and standards, equivalent to a ”bricks and mortar” pharmacy.

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Now Patient has a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) that is triggered if our systems are down. The aim of our BCP is to ensure that there is no significant disruption to the delivery of the health care services provided by Now Patient and that the pharmacy contributes effectively to civil emergencies where appropriate. ISO 22301 defines business continuity as:

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