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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Buying medicines online – the dangerous convenience

As the world’s population is increasing quickly, the healthcare industry is expected to become more important due to the expected rise in diseases’ outbreak. In addition, the number of old people (65 years and above) is rising, and will thus require greater medical attention. Expectedly, the healthcare industry is growing; Q3 of 2017 saw the overall industry’s revenue grow by 5.63% (YoY), with revenues reaching close to US$1 trillion. This figure includes revenues from sales of medicines, medical equipment and other healthcare-associated services.

The retail pharmacy industry alone is valued at close to US$400 billion (40% of the entire healthcare industry). The size and growth rate of the pharmaceutical industry make it one of the more lucrative industries to operate in. Unsurprisingly, several companies are fast establishing their presence online, intending to capture a slice of the revenues themselves and reach far greater customers. (There are close to 4 billion internet users worldwide). While most other healthcare products (such as surgery and testing equipment) are difficult to sell online and less likely to be bought by ordinary individuals, medicines are the easier to sell and most sought through the Internet.

A study in 2015 has found that there are over 30,000 websites offering medicines – both Over The Counter (OTC) and prescription – for purchase over the internet. This number is counting websites which solely operate as a pharmacy – selling medicines and other healthcare products; it does not include marketplaces/third-party vendors, such as Amazon and Alibaba, which also offer OTC medicines and other healthcare products for purchase, alongside other product categories.

Amazon’s presence in the pharmaceutical business has already disrupted the industry; firstly, it sells several OTC medicines at lower prices than most brick and mortar pharmacies. (Amazon does not have physical pharmacy stores and does not need to employ pharmacists, present in stores to dispense prescription drugs, hence has lower costs). Customers will be able to choose the medicine which fits their budget, rather than simply purchasing those which are deductible from their insurance plan. This will result in a price war and the prices of medicines will fall, further benefitting the customers.

Next comes the obvious benefit of purchasing online from any platform – convenience. Customers are already able to purchase the OTC medicines from any place, without going to the pharmacy, and getting it delivered to their doorstep. Amazon’s plans to start selling prescription drugs will further add convenience. This will make Amazon the go-to platform for medicines, due to the lower prices and convenience for customers. Overall, Amazon is predicted to capture up to 10% of the market alone.

It has not been all plain sailing however; despite all the benefits of purchasing medicines online, there are problems arising from the sales of medicines online. First, the obvious concern of getting the right medicines. As with buying goods online, customers buying medicines could be cheated. They would order certain medicines, but would receive counterfeit medicines, which have been made with dangerous substitute chemicals or contain the wrong proportion of ingredients.

In addition, there have also been cases of people ordering certain medicines online, but received ‘foreign substitutes’ of the medicines, which had adverse side effects on the people taking those medicines. While such cases will not happen when purchasing medicines through trusted platforms such as Amazon, there are several online stores which appear to be legitimate, yet involved in unscrupulous dealings.

Then there is the prevalence of circumventing the due diligence required in the sale of prescription medicines. In the US alone, a study found over 8000 online pharmacies selling prescription medicines without even requiring a proof of prescription; the same study found approximately 36 million people have bought medicines online without a prescription.

This is a problem as several people are increasingly self-diagnosing without proper consultation from doctors, but just going online to look up their symptoms. But there are several factors they do not take into account, which could result in an incorrect diagnosis, hence they get recommended a wrong medication course. This could lead to adverse effects too; this time by taking the right (proper) medication but for the wrong problem.

Another problem with the lack of due diligence is that people are allowed to purchase medicines in quantities far higher than required (or not required at all). Several prescription painkillers are known to give their users the ‘feel good’ feeling, meaning that they can be abused recreationally as drugs (narcotics). Because there is minimal regulation on their sales online, people purchase and consume these medicines without actually requiring it for any treatment. There have been people who have accidentally overdoses on these medicines (similar to narcotics).

With the increase in global population and rising risks of diseases, the healthcare industry is one of the most important. As with other prominent industries, the healthcare industry is establishing an online presence; most noticeably for the sale of medicines. While this has brought about several benefits for people, there are several risks – often fatal – associated with the availability of medicines online, because of the lack of checks and balances. However, most of these problems have already been noticed by the authorities and they are implementing solutions to improve the due diligence and minimize the harms.

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