Objective: To determine whether differences in the provision of pharmacy services exist among different types of Internet pharmacies.
Design: Survey of selected pharmacies with a presence on the Internet. Data were abstracted onto a data collection form for further analysis. Data collection was limited to 3 weeks.
Setting: U.S.-based Internet pharmacies that allow patients to purchase prescription medications online. Pharmacies were identified using a metasearch engine with the search terms "Internet pharmacy" and "Internet pharmacist."
Main outcome measures: Comparisons of availability of 10 commonly used products representing a variety of product categories, prescription verification methods, and privacy issues; and determinations of site navigability, drug information and provider access, and payment methods. Sites were categorized as "chain pharmacy extensions," "mail order pharmacies," "independent pharmacy extensions," and "online pharmacies."
Results: Thirty-three sites were reviewed. There was significant variation among the four types of pharmacies selling prescriptions over the Internet. Most pharmacies provided all of the drugs in the survey. Patients were required to provide their own prescription at 88% of the sites, and 75% of sites used mail or fax to verify prescription integrity. More than 50% of sites had privacy policies posted, and 64% used cookies. Chain pharmacy extensions required completion of an average of 10.2 pages to order drugs versus 2.4 to 4 pages for all other site types. Drug information was written at an eighth-grade reading level at 36% of the sites. More than two-thirds of the sites provided a toll-free telephone for a health care professional. Nearly 80% of the sites accepted health insurance, and 95% accepted credit cards; however, only 40% used a secure transmission mechanism for patient or payment information.
Conclusion: Internet pharmacies provide varying levels of service. Policies regarding the use of the Internet for obtaining medications should focus on improving the privacy of consumer information and ensuring the secure transmission of financial information.