Medications from the web: use of online pharmacies by emergency department patients

J Emerg Med. 2012 Feb;42(2):227-32. doi: 10.1016/j.jemermed.2010.05.035. Epub 2010 Jul 24.


Background: Internet access and online pharmacies are a resource for purchasing medications. It is unclear if this venue is being used by emergency department (ED) patients to obtain medications.

Objective: We sought to determine the frequency of and to characterize online pharmacy use by ED patients. We hypothesized that students and younger patients would be more likely than others to obtain medications via online pharmacies due to their familiarity with the Internet.

Methods: This prospective, cross-sectional survey occurred in an urban university ED. We enrolled a convenience sample of adult patients. The study was Institutional Review Board approved, and informed consent was obtained. To determine differences between online pharmacy users and non-users, chi-squared or Fisher's exact tests were used for categorical data, and t-test or Wilcoxon rank sum tests were used for continuous variables.

Results: There were 1657 patients who completed the survey. The mean age was 39 years, standard deviation 16 years; 947/1657 (57%) reported awareness of online pharmacies; 89/1657 (5.4%) patients used the Internet to order medications. More patients with prescription plans ordered medications from online pharmacies (94.3% vs. 70%; p<0.0001), and Internet users were more commonly on multiple medications (median 3 vs. 1; p<0.0001). There was no difference in age (39.4 vs. 41 years; p=0.2) or student status (13.8% vs. 14.9%; p=0.8) between the two groups.

Conclusions: Approximately 5% of ED patients used the Internet to obtain medications. Contrary to our hypothesis, younger patients were not more likely to use the Internet for medications. Patients on multiple medications and those with prescription plans used online pharmacies more frequently.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Hospitals, Teaching
  • Hospitals, Urban
  • Humans
  • Internet*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pharmaceutical Services, Online / statistics & numerical data*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Young Adult