An online pharmacy is an internet-based seller that sells medicines and incorporates both legitimate and illegitimate drug stores. Contemporary times are witnessing a surge in E-commerce, including online shopping, and this includes the sale of prescription and nonprescription medicines as well. The idea of online pharmacies and online sale of meds has been in vogue worldwide for over two decades. An estimated 2986 online pharmacies were operating globally in the year 2008, the numbers of which would have risen as of today.
Indian consumers too have begun using these online services in recent times. Laws for E-commerce are ill-defined and subject to varied interpretations.
Various laws govern the online pharmacies in India such as,
the Information Technology Act, 2000;
the Drug and Cosmetics Act, 1940;
Drugs and Cosmetic Rules, 1945;
Pharmacy Act, 1948; and
the Indian Medical Act, 1956,
Many of these, including the Drugs and Magic Remedies Act, under which drug advertisements are regulated, were written when the use of computers and the internet was not as prevalent as it is now. Laws do exist for online pharmacy stores located in India. As per the Indian laws, medicines can be sold only by a registered pharmacy that has a retail license and a registered pharmacist on the payroll. A prescription for medicines requested is required, with the exception of over-the-counter products. Orders for medicines can be taken just from regions where the drug store retail permit applies. All the medicines must be checked and confirmed by the registered pharmacist before delivery. However, there is a vagueness in regards to the shipping of medicines from one state to another and whether a pharmacy is permitted to collect money before delivery of meds.
Why are online pharmacies popular?
Online pharmacies offer better pricing over offline stores, with expanded access, lower product and transaction costs, convenience and more noteworthy anonymity for customers. They offer great accessibility to individuals with limited mobility in remote areas. These provide personalized medicine reminder service, discounts, doorstep delivery within a short time, and validation of prescription through licensed pharmacists. Information about substitutes and adverse effects is also available on these sites. Consumers believe that the medicines they receive from online pharmacies are comparable to medicines sold in the “brick-and-mortar pharmacies.” Notwithstanding their popularity, these pharmacies enjoy a fair share of controversies. The controversies gained media attention after the anthrax cases in 2001 which saw people ordering ciprofloxacin without a prescription. Use of “cyber doctors,” the dispensing of drugs without prescriptions, and the import of prescription medications are just the tip of the iceberg.
While online pharmacies could be a boon for consumers, these have acquired a not-so-commendable reputation due to various reasons, the primary of which is the unregulated manner of functioning. The scope of services offered by the online pharmacies is not limited to India alone. As per an estimate, there are between 30,000 and 50,000 online pharmacies operating in the USA. In addition, illegal websites may disappear without a trace, at the slightest hint of regulatory action. Consumers seeking overseas options to purchase medicines also pose a threat to the pharmaceutical industry and pharmacists of the respective country. The secrecy offered by the internet urges patients to look for data about medicines that they would some way or another avoid asking their physician or at an offline pharmacy. Legitimate sites have the appropriate technology to ensure security although the use of “cookies” to collect information about visitors and lack of secure web technology are inherent risks to anonymity.
The Pharmaceutical Crime Program supported by major pharmaceutical companies in 2013 helped crack down on illicit sites. Reputed sites such as the Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google permit only online pharmacies accredited through Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) program to advertise in the U.S. The credit card companies including VISA decline payments to online pharmacies that are not VIPPS-certified. In India too, the Maharashtra FDA has approached the Drugs Controller General of India to curb the illegal online sale of medicines.
A mutual awareness of the online purchase of medicines by the patient is necessary for better patient management and avoidance of the consequences of self-medication. We need to reflect on the consumers' interests and inclinations for online pharmacies to enhance a symbiotic physician-pharmacist-patient relationship.
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