Buying From Online Pharmacies: Does the Convenience Outweigh the Risks?

Medicine is the one item you should never buy online believes Karl Fiebelkorn, University at Buffalo School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences

Written by Kristin Della Volpe

Many people turn to the Internet to buy medications as a way to save money and time. However, many web sites selling drugs are not practicing under state and federal pharmacy laws, experts have found. Alarmingly, drugs sold online may be counterfeit (fake), contaminated, or have too high or too low a dose according to Karl Fiebelkorn, MBA, BS, AE-C, Senior Associate Dean for Student, Professional and Community Affairs at the University at Buffalo School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Many Online Pharmacies Do Not Follow Pharmacy Laws
As of June 2016, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) reviewed more than 11,000 online drug outlets and found that 96% did not comply with U.S. pharmacy laws and practice standard. A more targeted search showed that 35% of 138 Internet sites that sold controlled substances, including opioids did not comply with pharmacy laws. The NABP warned that many of these rogue websites sell fake, counterfeit, and tainted substances that can increase the risk of overdose and death.
“The biggest risk of buying prescription medications online is the risk of doing business with a website that is not a licensed pharmacy in the United States,” commented Lisa Schwartz, PharmD, Senior Director, Professional Affairs at National Community Pharmacists Association. “Licensed pharmacies purchase medications from reliable sources or face severe punishment from the FDA or board of pharmacy.  This is important protection for people who need medicine and live in the United States.”

“FDA and boards of pharmacy do a good job of protecting patients,” Dr. Schwartz said. Just this past June, 4,402 websites were found to illegally sell potentially dangerous or unapproved drugs to people who live in the United States. This was the ninth year FDA and Interpol have worked together, and thousands of websites are shut down every year. It is best to have a single pharmacy where you fill all your prescriptions and know your pharmacist.”

How To Buy Medications Online Safely
Dr. Schwartz advises patients that many websites selling prescription medications are NOT websites for licensed pharmacies. “They might luck out and get the medication they are trying to buy but it’s more likely that they will be disappointed and could be harmed.”

To help consumers see if an online pharmacy is safe, Dr. Schwartz suggested looking for one or more of these items on the website:

  1. A physical address on the home page that you can drive to and look at a copy of the pharmacy license.
  2. A URL that ends in “.pharmacy” can be bought from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy by licensed brick-and-mortar or online pharmacies. Visit for a list of “.pharmacy” websites.
  3. A Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site (VIPPS) badge.

The Benefits of Buying From Community Pharmacies
The benefits of having a single pharmacist manage all of your medication needs are multifold. Community pharmacies may offer the same prices as online sellers, help patients obtain less expensive generic forms of medications when appropriate, and answer questions more quickly than online pharmacies, which may have long hold times and require repeated transfers to address questions, Mr. Fiebelkorn said.

“Your local pharmacist monitors your medication patterns for adherence and dangerous drug interactions, and works with your primary health care provider to make sure you obtain the medication that is right for you and your budget,” Mr. Fiebelkorn said. “These highly-trained pharmacists are there to discuss your medications face-to-face.”

In addition, mediations that are affected by cold or hot temperatures may not be suitable for shipping. For example, a medication package may sit in a mailbox or delivery truck for hours at extremely high or low temperatures, which may leave the medicine ineffective, Dr. Mr. Fiebelkorn said. Furthermore, shipping delays or lost packages can be dangerous for patients who require daily medications for chronic diseases.

“Several pharmacists have told me that patients come to their pharmacy because the medication they ordered from an online pharmacy is delayed or never arrived,” Mr. Fiebelkorn said. “During bouts of severe weather where the postal service did not run, it was the independent pharmacies who traveled to deliver needed medications to their patients,” Mr. Fiebelkorn noted.

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