Study finds alarming rise in willingness to buy meds online

Researchers in the US have found that there has been a marked increase in the purchase of medicines through online sources since the start of the pandemic, including through unsafe channels like social media, that could expose buyers to counterfeits.

The team from Butler University and Michigan State University carried out a survey of around 1,000 US consumers to examine how often they bought medicines online, as well as their motivation for doing so and perception of risk.

Almost 18 per cent of respondents said they buy medications online, with the top reasons for doing so getting legitimate medicine, getting a good deal and purchasing from a source recommended by people they knew.

That willingness to buy online can be problematic. While some online pharmacies act legitimately, a 2017 study by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) found that nearly 96 per cent of websites selling prescription meds were operating illegally.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that in more than half of cases, medicines purchased over the Internet from illegal sites that conceal their physical address have been found to be counterfeit.

It's worth noting that both of those assessment came ahead of a surge in reports of medicine sales via social media channels like Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook by illegal sellers.

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Added to that, there is a growing population of people who have become accustomed to using the Internet to access just about anything, and they are reaching the age where they are increasingly consumers of healthcare products.

The scope of the study, led by Butler associate professor of pharmacy John Hertig, was a list of 20 specific platforms, including online pharmacies, e-commerce sites, social media platforms, and instant messaging services, and didn’t include any dark web sources

Online pharmacies, Amazon and Google were considered to be the safest sites to purchase medicines, but even those that participants perceived as least trustworthy – Kik and TikTok – were still given scores that indicated they were seen as safe.

"Especially recently, people order everything online – from toilet paper, to Oreos, and now prescription medicines," said Hertig. "When more people are comfortable going online, there are more opportunities for illegal actors to take advantage of consumers."

More than half of the participants reported that they had purchased narcotics (54.6 per cent) and stimulants (52 per cent) from at least one of the online platforms.

"We as a society, and we as a healthcare community, need to continue to educate our consumers on the risk of social media as a mechanism by which to get prescription drugs," according to Hertig.

"We also need to educate ourselves, within the healthcare community, that this is occurring here in the US every day – it’s not just a problem in lower-income countries."

He also said social media, search engines, and e-commerce platforms also must do more to take accountability for what's being distributed illegally on their platforms.

The research is published in the journal Health Policy.

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