Survey: more education needed on risks of buying meds online

More than half of Americans are taking risks and potentially jeopardising their health by buying prescription medicines online, a new survey has revealed, highlighting the need for more education.

According to the survey by the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP), 55 per cent of Americans have bought or would consider buying prescription medicines online. In addition, ASOP also found that 74 per cent of consumers who had purchased prescription medicines from an online pharmacy in the past would do it again.

ASOP is concerned by the risks people take to access drugs online when 96 per cent of online pharmacies do not comply with US federal and state laws and pharmacy standards.

According to the survey, one-in-five online pharmacy users find online pharmacies through a web search, with less than 5 per cent of consumers reporting they were likely to use a government list of safe online pharmacies, while just over half (51 per cent) of previous online pharmacy consumers used a site that was not affiliated with their local brick-and-mortar pharmacy.

In addition, 91 per cent had not discussed the risks of purchasing medicines online with their healthcare providers and 95 per cent were not aware of tools available to help verify the safety of online pharmacies.

"These statistics are alarming since there are 33,000 illegal online pharmacies at any given time and 100% per cent of internet searches for ‘buy medicine online’ lead consumers to dangerous pharmacy websites, increasing their chances of receiving counterfeit medications from unknown sources," said ASOP Global's executive director Libby Baney.

The survey, which interviewed 500 Americans to evaluate consumer behaviour and perceptions on internet pharmacies, comes at a time when healthcare, drug prices and access to medicines is in the spotlight in the US.

"This is especially timely because as millions of Americans face the prospect of changes in their healthcare coverage should Congress repeal or replace the Affordable Care Act, or legalise prescription drug importation from Canada, people may turn to the internet to access prescription medicines," Baney said.

The survey found that those people most likely to consider purchasing medications online were younger, have higher incomes, and purchase other items online. Furthermore, 72 per cent of daily social media users would consider purchasing medications online compared with the 75 per cent of non-social media users who would not consider using an online pharmacy.

Of consumers who had used an online pharmacy, 9 per cent had bought from a Canadian online pharmacy, meanwhile 11 per cent of consumers said they were likely to use a Canadian online pharmacy, with 15 per cent willing to accept a moderate-to-high risk in using such sites. Interestingly, the survey found that 20 per cent of consumers are likely to use a Canadian online pharmacy when told the medicines were cheaper. Yet, 53 per cent of consumers perceive Canadian online pharmacies as risky.

Canadian internet pharmacies have garnered much attention of late in the US after proposals aiming to curb the cost of prescription medicines have suggested legislation allowing cheaper drug imports into America, namely from Canada. The pharmaceutical industry, pharmacy groups and several former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioners have vocally opposed the plans citing risks to the integrity of the supply from potential counterfeits as well as potential exacerbation of the opioid crisis in the US.

This has also been emphasised by the ongoing scam where individuals and associates of the internet pharmacy have been accused of illegally importing and selling $78m-worth of unapproved, misbranded and counterfeit drugs, including fake cancer drugs, to US doctors between 2009 and 2012. Six Canadian men currently face extradition to the US in connection with the racket.

The survey found that after educating those surveyed about the risks of online pharmacies claiming to be Canadian, 59 per cent of respondents said they opposed legalising drug importation.

ASOP believes more education about the risks of online pharmacies is necessary to safeguard consumers.

"All of these findings prove that much more education is needed. In addition to encouraging people to verify the safety of their pharmacy website before buying prescription medicines online and take advantage of organisations that help patients save money on medicines, ASOP Global will continue to work tirelessly to educate, advocate for and protect consumers around the globe," Baney said.

The ASOP survey follows MarkMonitor research that found 16 per cent of consumers had ben duped into buying fake medicines online.

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