GPhC: Regulatory standard to limit the risks of online services

The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) has expressed concern about the growing risks associated with online pharmacy services.

It revealed that more than 30% of its open Fitness to Practice (FtP) cases were related to online pharmacy, which is disproportionate to the market sector occupied by online services.

The regulator has advised pharmacists and owners of pharmacies providing online services that they should ‘not work with online providers who attempt to circumvent the regulatory oversight put in place in the UK to ensure patient safety’ .

In the past five months, the Council has imposed seven interim orders on the registration of pharmacists who have worked for or with online prescribing services – after identifying serious problems with their practice.

He said: “These pharmacists were working as self-employed prescribing pharmacists for online services or dispensing prescribed medicines online. Some of these pharmacists were the Pharmacist in Charge (RP) or the Pharmacist Superintendent (SP).

The Council is continuing its FTP investigations and has a number of ongoing investigations into other pharmacists working for online services and plans to take further action.

Common themes in these cases include drugs prescribed to patients solely on the basis of an online questionnaire, with no direct interaction between the prescriber and the patient or their GP; the prescription of high-risk drugs or drugs requiring monitoring without adequate safeguards; prescription of drugs outside the prescriber’s scope of practice; and high volumes of prescriptions issued by the prescriber in a short time.

“We have also taken enforcement action against more than 50 online pharmacies since March 2019 after identifying patient safety issues during inspections. Only 71% of the online pharmacies we inspected from 2019-22 met all of our standards for registered pharmacies, compared to an overall benchmark of 85% for all pharmacies,” GPhC said in its letter to pharmacy owners.

GPhC added: “We are writing to inform you of the serious patient safety issues we continue to identify with certain online pharmacies and online prescription services, and the actions we are taking in response.”

All pharmacists are advised to adhere to the GPhC Standards for Pharmacy Professionals at all times, including those working for an online pharmacy or prescription service. They must also ensure that the service complies with the relevant parts of the GPhC guidelines on the provision of pharmaceutical services remotely, including over the Internet.

The Council advised independent prescribing pharmacists to ensure that they follow the GPhC guidelines for prescribing pharmacists when prescribing.

“You are responsible for ensuring that the medications you prescribe are clinically appropriate for patients and still work within the scope of your practice,” the GPhC said.

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Veronica J. Snell