Objective: E-pharmacies are web sites selling prescription-only medicines and other products including non-prescription and complementary medicines to consumers via the internet. This study aims to evaluate the quality of global e-pharmacies, discuss whether e-pharmacies support the safe and appropriate use of medicines, and consider how we can protect consumers in the future.
Methods: A survey of public information published on global e-pharmacy web sites was conducted between July and September 2001. We used a meta-search engine, Copernic, and the search terms of 'online' or 'internet', and 'pharmacy', 'pharmacies' and 'medicines' to identify a sampling frame of global e-pharmacies. We surveyed all web sites in the sampling frame except those under construction or only offering electronic refills, members-only and non-English web sites. Survey data included country of origin, range of medicines sold, prescription requirements, availability of online medical consultations and pharmacists' advice, quality accreditation seals, policies and advertisements.
Results: E-pharmacies operated in at least 13 countries; however, the country of origin could not be identified for 22 web sites. Twenty web sites (19%) appeared to supply prescription-only medicines with no prescription required. Only 12% of e-pharmacies displayed quality accreditation seals. We observed information published on e-pharmacy web sites that potentially undermines the safe and appropriate use of medicines.
Conclusion: Safeguarding consumers and ensuring the quality of web sites that sell medicines across state and national boundaries is both complex and difficult. Strategies to improve the quality of e-pharmacies include independent third-party regulation of providers, evaluation and enforcement of sanctions in cases of dissemination of fraudulent or harmful information and practices, self-regulation and consumer education. The development of internet regulatory technologies themselves and the resolution of jurisdictional issues offer future solutions but international co-operation is vital.