Shopping was never this easy. With online shops now catering to everything from food items to diapers and furniture to cars, there is virtually nothing you can't buy sitting at home and have it delivered at your doorstep. The latest to take the e–tailing pill are online pharmacies, a sector that was beyond the click–and–buy craze till now. Several websites have been delivering over–the–counter (OTC) medicines, but some of them have now started taking orders for prescription drugs too. The response, according to these website operators, is "overwhelming".
These websites claim to use technology to help consumers find all the medicines they need from the convenience of their homes or offices, provided they attach a scanned copy of the doctor's prescription. Among the popular websites offering online delivery of medicines in the National Capital Region are HealthKartPlus (www.healthkartplus.com) and YoPharma (www.YoPharma.com). Apollo Pharmacy, too, offers similar services in NCR and other cities in the country.
Having launched information service and medicine application in September 2012, HealthKartPlus launched its online medicine delivery service in April 2013, "after a feasibility study". Vikas Chauhan, who leads the HealthKartPlus initiative, claims that over 60,000 people have already downloaded their Android, iPhone and Windows 8 apps.
YoPharma, which started delivery of medicines in February 2013, too, claims to have received a positive response. "Patients often don't have anyone to get them medicines. This is where we are of a big help," says Chhavi Gupta, Co–founder and MD, YoPharma.
However, amid reports that several sites illegally promoting sales of drugs were found to be hosted in India, concerns have been raised over the possible misuse of medicines ordered online. But the Indian players allay such fears.
"We only process orders once we have received the prescription," says Chauhan. YoPharma says it follows all the regulatory guidelines that are required for a brick–and–mortar pharmacy. "Web is being used only for acquiring orders, rest of the process remains offline. We have a strict check in place for prescription which are needed beforehand. This prescription can be uploaded on the website or mobile application. Orders are executed only after the prescription is checked by our pharmacist," says Gupta.
HealthKartPlus has a different model and works with pharmacy partners. "When you place an order, HealthKartPlus will find the closest pharmacy partner in the network, and make sure that the pharmacy partner fulfils the order. We work only with select partners to ensure the quality of medicines and service are of the highest level," says Chauhan.
While YoPharma delivers OTC and Schedule H drugs, HealthKartPlus offers Schedule X drugs too. But, Chauhan says, "for Schedule X drugs, the pharmacy partner might need to connect with the patient or the doctor to reconfirm the prescription".
About the fear of misuse of medicines, especially sedatives and painkillers, Gupta says: "We take utmost care for this. Our computer database and alert system for these medicines keep a check during the ordering process. We don't confirm these orders without a regular prescription checking."
Chauhan agrees that this is an area of concern. "Since we do not process any order without prescription, the chances of abuse are significantly lower. Also, if we see the quantities of medication orders to be unusual, our trained team raises an alarm for more detailed scrutiny." And the company claims all their transactions are recorded.
Meanwhile, there are reports of illegal online pharmacies hijacking popular pharma brands to sell counterfeit medicines. The lack of a specific law governing online pharmacies and regulatory control over drug advertisements on television or the Internet, hence, is a matter of concern, feels senior cyberlaw expert Pavan Duggal. He says the IT Act 2000 is silent on online pharmacies.
While brick–and–mortar pharmacies need a lot of permits and are governed by a number of Acts, including Drugs and Cosmetics Act 1940, Pharmacy Act 1948, Drugs and Magic Remedies and Objectionable Advertising Act 1954, NDPS Act 1985 and Medicinal and Toilet Preparations (Excise Duty) Act 1956, online pharmacies need no specific licence or permit. But in the absence of a legislation, says Duggal, the law of the land should apply to online pharmacies. If found indulging in irregularities, these pharmacies can be prosecuted under Sections 21(W) and 79 of the IT Act 2000.
According to Duggal, they can be sued for damages by way of compensation up to Rs 5 crore per contravention, and top management of the websites can face imprisonment from three years to a life term and fine ranging from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 10 lakh. With no standards of quality control in India, he says, an area of concern is the sale of non–allopathic medicines on the Internet, such as Unani and Naturopathy.
Though no figures or scientific studies are available in India on loss of human life due to consumption of drugs ordered online, Duggal says effective remedies should be in place for protection of health of lay people opting for online drugs. Since these pharmacies operate through couriers, there is a need to strengthen the regime to avoid unscrupulous elements creeping into the drugs delivery system, he warns.
"The IT Act needs to come up with a dedicated legislation to regulate online pharmacies because already a large number of people want to go to online pharmacies to access drugs they may not be getting without prescription elsewhere. Specific parameters and guidelines should be put in place. The quicker we wake up from the slumber and legally regulate online pharmacies, the better it will be," says Duggal. He is of the opinion that there should also be an online pharmacy regulator to provide the customers with a platform to air their grievances and get effective remedy.
Officials in the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation, could not be contacted for comments despite repeated attempts. SMSes and emails sent to the department, too, elicited no response.SAFETY TIPS
While the government here is yet to formulate guidelines for people opting for online medicines, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the US has safety tips displayed on its website. Cyberlaw expert Pavan Duggal, too, lists some dos and don'ts.
- It is always a good idea to do prior search on the websites through social media and Internet
- Only order medicines prescribed by your doctor
- Don't buy medicines if you are not asked to produce a prescription
- Ensure the website has a qualified pharmacist for checks and verifications
- Look for privacy and security policies that are easy to find and easy to understand
- Make sure the website has a real–world address and phone number
- Beware if you are offered heavy discounts or cheap prices that are not in sync with the market rate, or sent spam or unsolicited email offering cheap drugs
- Check for fineprint in terms and conditions. Don't order if the website says it is not responsible for the quality of drugs delivered
- Make sure you are transacting on a secure website
- It's better to go for known medicine brands. They are more reliable
- Look closely at the URL. If the domain name is misspelt, or if it forwards you to another site, stay away
The Indian Express
27 July 2013.