ONLINE PHARMACIES: Industry Growing, but Safety Questions Remain
Amidst the "cutthroat competition" in the online pharmacy market, some companies are beginning to develop successful Web-based enterprises, Knight Ridder/Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Last year, Americans bought $158 million worth of prescription drugs online, or 0.2% of the $100.6 billion spent overall, leaving "enormous room for growth." The most successful online retailer is Merck-Medco, a subsidiary of Merck & Co. Prescription drugs are available on the Merck-Medco Web site, www.merck- medco.com, but only to consumers whose health plans also use the company's pharmacy benefits manager component. Merck-Medco also has formed an alliance with CVS.com to distribute CVS products online to Merck customers. Another major online pharmacy, Drugstore.com, has formed partnerships with Cigna Corp. of Philadelphia and California-based WellPoint Health Networks Inc. Such coalitions may be the only way that online pharmacies can survive financially. Jim Williamson, an IDC analyst, noted that "pure play" Internet drug retailers, or "those exclusively devoted to online business," are losing money (Karash, Knight Ridder/Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/23). Although Drugstore.com posted "significantly higher" revenues in the first half of this year, the company will report its fourth-straight quarterly loss (Piskora, New York Post, 10/23).
But Is It Safe?
As the online pharmacy industry grows, so do concerns about the safety of obtaining prescription drugs through the Internet. FDA Commissioner Jane Henney said, "Unfortunately, fraudulent or disreputable Web sites selling prescription drugs [do] exist." The FDA warns that illegal Web sites "may send ... counterfeit or contaminated drugs, the wrong drug, or an incorrect dose." To prevent such occurrences, several federal and state prosecutors have sought and won injunctions against illegal sites. Last year, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy created the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites program, which certifies traditional and online pharmacies by ensuring their compliance with state laws, patients' right to privacy, authentication and security procedures and quality assurance policies. Richard Hellman, a physician and president of the Metropolitan Medical Society of Greater Kansas City, said, "What we've learned so far is that there are a lot of hazards for people buying things over the Internet. The promises made are not always kept, and the drugs aren't always what people think they are" (Karash, Kansas City Star, 10/21).