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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 August, 2004, 14:52 GMT 15:52 UK
Internet pharmacies get go-ahead
The move follows last year's OFT report
The government has given the green-light to internet-only pharmacies in England.

The move follows a decision to ease the rules on where new pharmacies can be located.

Under the plans, pharmacists opening in large shopping centres or for more than 100 hours a week will find it much easier to get a licence.

More licences will also be made available to pharmacists opening in new one-stop primary care centres.

While the proposals only apply to England, policies are being reviewed in other parts of the UK. Scotland and Wales have already rejected calls to relax the rules entirely.

Rule change

Some pharmacies already allow customers to order or buy medicines online. However, under the current rules they must also have a "bricks and mortar" store before they can do this.

Under these latest proposals, licences will be available for the first time to those opening internet-only and mail order pharmacies.

I have used the internet to order medicines many times and have to say that it is convenient, easy and often cheaper than the high street.
Amir Khan, London
The Department of Health said there would be strict rules to ensure that internet-only pharmacies provided a professional service.

The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, which represents community pharmacists on NHS matters, said online pharmacies would have to be monitored closely.

"There will have to be constraints on how medicines are delivered," said Sue Sharpe, its chief executive.

"They will have to make sure that the medicines do not fall into the wrong hands."

The changes follow last year's report from the Office of Fair Trading, which called for the sector to be deregulated.

The OFT said relaxing the rules on where new pharmacies can be located would save patients and the NHS money.

John Vickers, its chairman, criticised the government's decision not to relax the rules entirely, calling it "a missed opportunity".

At present, anyone interested in opening a pharmacy and dispensing NHS prescriptions must apply to their local primary care organisation for a contract.

This process is aimed at ensuring there is a good spread of outlets around the country and pharmacies are not just located in profitable areas.

But it also means that some people are refused contracts if a pharmacy already exists in the local area.

There are currently over 12,000 retail pharmacies with NHS contracts across the UK.

Local community pharmacists had strongly opposed calls to deregulate the sector, saying it would put many of them out of business.

'More choice'

Health Minister Rosie Winterton said the proposed changes would give patients more choice.

They will have to make sure that the medicines do not fall into the wrong hands.
Sue Sharpe,
Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee
"We are determined to improve access to, and the choice of, pharmacy services," she said.

But John D'Arcy, chief executive of the National Pharmaceutical Association, said the proposed changes could put some pharmacies out of business.

"The opening of new pharmacies under the new exemptions will serve to suck business away from existing pharmacies.

"If this happens, existing pharmacies may be forced into reducing the level of services on offer and in extreme cases, existing pharmacies may be forced into closure."

Any changes to the current rules will require new legislation. This is unlikely to be introduced until after the next general election, expected next year.

Here are a selection of your views on internet-only pharmacies?

How will the average user tell if he's buying from a reputable source not fly by night snake oil spammer.
Subhi S Hashwa, Edinburgh

This looks like it is catering to those people with transport, who can get to a supermarket, and those people with computers. The poor lose out again
Jessie Normaschild, London, UK

Internet pharmacies will be abused as the people at the other end cannot distinguish between charlatans. Will junkies use their visa cards to buy methadone? I think not.

All these rules will do is to kill small businesses and allow more money to go into the already monopolising supermarkets.
Cliff Pounder, Essex, UK

I have used the internet to order medicines many times and have to say that it is convenient, easy and often cheaper than the high street. Internet-only pharmacy are good ideas, as long as people are not allowed to misuse the service. I do and would use the service(again).
Amir Khan, London, England

I welcome the introduction of on-line pharmacies in the UK. I have ordered pharmaceuticals from the United States before and this service is preferable to that offered by high street pharmacies.

With increased traffic and parking problems in towns and cities, together with rude and aggressive shop staff, on-line services are surely the way forward.
Janet Lea, Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire

How will we be able to tell the difference between proper licensed internet pharmacies and unlicensed sites?
Kate George, Bracknell UK

Great idea if my experience in USA is anything to go by. Repeat prescriptions are handled by the pharmacies over there, rather than a monthly double trip to the doctor's office that I have here, and the online pharmacies provide up to 3 months supply of a drug for the same price as a single month.

If that could be done over here, with one prescription fee instead of three, it would be a good thing. Obviously there is scope for abuse of the system, though.
Jeff, London, UK

What is going to happen when everyone in Wales is entitled to free prescriptions (2007) while charges are levied on people in England.

Free prescriptions in Wales and internet prescriptions will finish off the small and local chemist. The British government does not care about local services in England.
Mike Blundell, Bristol, England

Great idea! My local pharmacies never have everything I need in stock, so it usually takes me at least 2 trips. Having it all delivered to my office would be a huge improvement. But how would we get the prescription (which is still always on paper) to the internet-only pharmacy in the first place?
Julian Field, Southampton, UK

I think the idea of internet pharmacies is a good idea. But what may not have been taken into account is dispensing GP practices.

A lot of dispensing practices rely on dispensing income to pay for improved patient care, patient access and staff wages. If internet pharmacies take away business from dispensing GPs, then patients may see a decrease in services offered, loss of practice staff and in extreme cases the closure of GP surgeries.
Cal Deane, Harpenden, England

I have not purchased medication over the internet and I most certainly do not think that it is a good idea. The pharmacist can ask face to face questions as to why you think you require the medication, whereas on the internet you are a faceless person and thus you could be anyone who you say you are.
Wyn Brady, Oldham Lancashire

This could be a potentially excellent service for those in rural areas who may not be able to get to a pharmacy on a regular basis, which does not just mean the elderly. However it must be monitored extremely closely to ensure that medicines are not distributed inappropriately.
Rob, Aberystwyth, Wales

Whilst I feel the availability of an internet pharmacy will be of great assistance to those who have problems such as managing to get to a pharmacy to obtain a prescription, I do feel that those who would be at greatest benefit from this, such as the elderly, will be less likely to benefit due to a decreased use in IT.

I also feel that surely, the best way to obtain prescriptions & non-prescription medicines is after speaking to a pharmacy employee in person, as there may be other things that need to be taken into account when supplying people with medicines, that in some cases, people may have problems with.
Allan, Whitehaven, Cumbria, UK.

I can forsee medication getting into the wrong hands and postal problems could cause delivery delays. I can't see myself using such a service and would much prefer more easier access and opening times for existing pharmacies. I also wonder how much this would add to the already high costs of medication, and prescriptions?
Kirsty, Sunderland, England

A brilliant idea, but with the Post Office cutting back on the number of deliveries and coupled with their poor delivery record, one may be ill advised to rely on this new internet service for essential drugs that must be delivered urgently!
John, London, UK

The BBC's Gill Higgins
"It all sounds like a good idea but there could be a drawback"

Plans to boost pharmacy numbers
29 Aug 03  |  Health

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