Increased co-operation between countries in developing regulation of online pharmacies is needed, according to the authors of a recent report, Online Pharmacy Operations and Distribution of Medicines, published by the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP).

The report, produced by FIP’s Community Pharmacy Section, presents the findings of a global survey of pharmacy organisations on a wide variety of aspects of online pharmacy, including the types of medicines these pharmacies supply in different countries, how the authenticity of online pharmacies can be verified, and the usage of eprescriptions and shared patient health records.

Of the 79 countries responding to the survey, 51 per cent said that no regulation of online pharmacies exists. Although online pharmacies offer convenience of increased access to medicines and services, a lack of regulation or lack of enforcement of regulation creates an avenue for illegal pharmacies and may impact the overall quality of medicines and services offered to consumers, the authors point out.

They say that risks to patient safety include supply of substandard or falsified medicines, failure in supply-chain protocols (which can affect the quality of a medicine), and a lack of professional advice or medicines information. Furthermore, a quarter of the respondents reported cases of irresponsible or inappropriate self-medication by consumers who had purchased medicines through online pharmacies.

“Online pharmacies have now been around for over 20 years, but the Covid-19 pandemic has rapidly shifted the e-commerce landscape, including in the pharmacy sector. It is likely that changed preferences for online services will remain and the importance of online pharmacies will continue to grow. It is important for health professionals to ensure consumers are informed and empowered to make good decisions related to the use of online pharmacies,” said Mr Lars-Åke Söderlund, immediate past-President of FIP’s Community Pharmacy Section and coeditor of the report.

The survey also reveals that community pharmacists in most countries do not have read-andwrite access to digital health records and the authors say that this is a barrier to an effective contribution by community pharmacists to optimal patient care. “Evidence indicates that community pharmacists with access to digital health records provide more comprehensive reviews, better identification of medication-related issues and strengthened clinical recommendations.

Pharmacists having access to digital health records is especially critical if a medicine is supplied via the Internet,” Mr Söderlund said. “Consumers are increasingly wanting convenience, innovation and personalisation. This challenges pharmacists to provide a positive face-to-face experience for consumers utilising online channels. Nevertheless, digital transformation is critical and is an opportunity for pharmacies to further reinforce their place at the heart of their communities, with appropriate investment,” said FIP CEO Dr Catherine Duggan.

She added: “This report on online pharmacies is part of FIP’s programme of work on digital pharmacy practice. It aims to support developments necessary for our profession to continue providing quality healthcare — medicines and services, online or in a brick-and-mortar pharmacy — to meet evolving demands.”