Buying Medicines Online: Our Guide to Safety

Many people turn to online providers when it comes to getting prescription treatment. Internet pharmacies can provide a quick, safe and convenient means of getting access to medication, without having to pay a visit to a local or high street chemist in person.

However, there are many illegitimate pharmacies trading online who are not regulated by UK authorities, and buying medicines from these sites presents considerable risks. The treatments they sell may not be genuine; and even if they are, the seller may not perform the necessary checks to establish that a particular medicine is safe or suitable for a patient prior to issue.

Before buying medicine online, it is essential for your own safety to make sure the pharmacy website you are using is operating legally and within guidelines set by UK regulators.

On this page, we will discuss some of the checks you can make when using an online pharmacy to ensure it is operating within UK regulations, and that the medicines it is selling are genuine.

Look for the GPhC logo

The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) is the regulatory body for pharmacies in Great Britain. In order to be able to operate, a pharmacy must be registered with them; and this includes those providing services online.

The GPhC runs a voluntary logo scheme. The logo is intended to help patients identify sites which are registered with the GPhC, and working to their standards of practice.

The logo looks like this:

Registered Pharmacy Certification Number 9010946

If a pharmacy is based in England, Scotland or Wales and is registered with the GPhC, they are permitted to carry the above logo on their site. Clicking on the logo should take you to the pharmacy’s entry on the council register (as clicking on the above does).

The regulatory body in Northern Ireland is the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland (PSNI). You can find their register and search for pharmacy entries here.

Look for the EU common logo

As of July 2015, it is required by law for any UK pharmacy operating online to be registered with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. Furthermore, the EU common logo needs to be displayed on every page on such sites where medicines are offered for sale.

The logo looks like this:

Registered Pharmacy Certification Number 9010946

Clicking on the logo will take you to the pharmacy’s entry on the MHRA register (as the above does).

Displaying the EU common logo is a legal requirement for pharmacies operating in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; you should therefore avoid buying medicine from any pharmacy site which does not carry it.

Look for the CQC logo

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) is an independent body which regulates health and social care services in England, including online pharmacies.

The logo looks like this:

Registered Pharmacy Certification Number 9010946

Clicking on the logo will take you to the pharmacy’s entry (as above).

At present, it is not compulsory for online pharmacies to be registered with the CQC.

However, a pharmacy who is registered with the CQC will be regularly monitored by them to ensure they meet their standards for quality and delivery of care.

Looking for this logo on the site you are using will help you to ensure that the services offered are safe.

Prescriptions are still required

It’s important to remember that a pharmacy website cannot issue a prescription medicine without a valid prescription.

Prescriptions can only be drawn up by certain people, such as:

  • doctors
  • dentists
  • nurse prescribers
  • pharmacy prescribers
  • optometrist prescribers
  • podiatrists
  • or physiotherapists  

following a consultation.

In cases where you have already consulted with a doctor and received a prescription, you will need to provide a paper version or an e-prescription to the pharmacy, before they can dispense your medicine.

As part of their service, some pharmacy sites such as offer also online consultations with GMC doctors, who can issue an e-prescription after assessing a patient. A consultation might include the competition an online health questionnaire by the patient, which is then reviewed by a doctor. Other sites may offer consultations with doctors through an online video call.

However sites which offer to fulfil prescription medicine orders with ‘no prescription required’ cannot legally do so. An online pharmacy either:

  • needs to be presented with a valid prescription from a certified prescriber; or
  • provide a means for the patient to obtain a prescription via an online consultation with a certified prescriber.  

In the UK, the General Medical Council (GMC) is the regulatory body for doctors and practitioners. To be able to practise medicine in the UK, a doctor must be registered with them.

If the website lists the names of the doctors prescribing or carrying out consultations on their behalf, you can check to see if they are registered here.

Professional communication

Pharmacists and people who run pharmacy services are trained professionals. It’s unlikely that a pharmacy operating legitimately will present itself in a manner which is unprofessional.

Before buying medicine online, it’s important then to look around the site you’re using, and consider the following:

  • Is it professionally presented?
  • Does the site offer information about itself and the services offered? Does it explain its processes?
  • Is there a contact number and address listed?
  • Is the content on the website well-written? Are there obvious spelling mistakes?
  • Is the website regularly updated?

Similarly, when someone from the site contacts you, via email or otherwise, this communication should also be conducted in a professional manner. Legitimate pharmacies are very unlikely to send out correspondence which contains obvious errors or spelling mistakes.

You can read more about safe online practices and protecting your information here.

Prices and payments

It is illegal for pharmacies to offer prescription medications on a ‘free trial’. Genuine pharmacies fulfilling private prescriptions are also unlikely to be able to offer prescription treatments at a heavily discounted price. Any site promising ‘special one-time offers’ on medicines should be treated with the utmost caution.

A legitimate pharmacy should also provide a secure means of making payment. Check to see if the site uses a recognised payment gateway. If the site itself takes card payments, it should do so over a secure connection using HTTPS encryption.

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