Keeping patients safe online as healthcare goes digital

Following reports in the media about new regulation for online pharmacies, Catherine McDermott, McKesson UK’s Chief Digital Officer explains why the rules are necessary to keep pace with technological developments:

For a long time, the healthcare sector has lagged behind in the digital revolution. It’s become commonplace for us to buy food and clothing online and even financial services has embraced technology with 70% of us now using internet banking.  Yet it’s only in the last few years that telehealth has been accepted by more than a few early adopters.

Our Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, is a fan of tech-driven technology and is keen to drive its use in the NHS.  Let’s face it, with the pressures the NHS is under, there’s little choice other than to embrace the efficiencies that new technology in Britain’s health and Social care system will bring.

With patients now seeking out medicines via the internet, they need to be more aware of the risks. People are concerned about how their data is used and how they engage with online brands and experiences, especially since the introduction of GDPR legislation and well-publicised data breaches. Medical data has even greater sensitivity for them.

We know from online research by YouGov, commissioned by the General Pharmaceutical Council, that 25% of people say they are likely to use online pharmacies in the future, but 50% of those that are unlikely to do so have concerns about the safety of online pharmacies. Some caution is necessary…

It’s important that people are protected and that patients don’t have ready access to medicines that are open to abuse or could cause harm. That’s why it’s good news for legitimate providers that new safeguards are being introduced.  Updated guidance from the General Pharmaceutical Council says online pharmacies must check who the patient is before prescribing a medicine.

Our LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor service was the first of its kind to be registered with the Care Quality Commission (CQC).  The CQC inspection report in 2017 found that LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor “provided safe, effective, caring, and responsive and well led services in accordance with the relevant regulations”. The CQC also recognised the benefits of combining online transactions and face to face consultation through the LloydsPharmacy physical community pharmacy network.  It noted that “Certain medicines had to be collected to allow a face to face interaction, for example, the first prescription for weight loss medicine. Patients receiving contraception medicines were required to attend the pharmacy to have their blood pressure and weight checked on initiation, at three months and thereafter annually.”

As people become more comfortable and confident with conducting all aspects of their lives in an online environment, we need to make sure that regulation keeps pace but does not stifle innovation. We are always looking to improve our offer by understanding our patients’ needs. This means however that focusing on the ease of access for the majority can sometimes result in unforeseen outcomes. Making tech-driven health as approachable, informative and accessible as possible whilst meeting the necessary highly regulated criteria is a delicate balance.

We work continuously to protect our patients and help them with their medication, provide additional support to NHS services and build great links with GPs and our communities. We’re proud to say that our services are registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council.

In the meantime, it is more important than ever to use brands that you trust in an online environment as well as on the high street.

How to keep safe when using an online pharmacy

  • Make sure the online pharmacy is registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council. The online pharmacy should say this prominently on its homepage or ‘About us’ page and give its registration number. You might also see this logo which should click through to the register:
  • Visit pharmacyregulation.org/registers/pharmacy to check the pharmacy is on the online register.
  • Expect to be asked questions about your health and identity before being able to buy a medicine and answer them honestly. This will help the health professionals prescribing or supplying the medicine to make sure it is safe and appropriate for you.
  • Avoid websites which offer to supply prescription-only medicines without a prescription; you could put your health at serious risk.