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      Evaluating Aspects of Online Medication Safety in Long-Term Follow-Up of 136 Internet Pharmacies: Illegal Rogue Online Pharmacies Flourish and Are Long-Lived

      , PharmD, PhD , 1 , , PharmD 1 , , PharmD, PhD, Habilitation 1

      (Reviewer), (Reviewer), (Reviewer)

      Journal of Medical Internet Research

      JMIR Publications Inc.

      online pharmacies, Internet pharmacy, online pharmaceutical services, online medicines, counterfeit medicines, patient safety

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          Abstract

          Background

          A growing number of online pharmacies have been established worldwide. Among them are numerous illegal websites selling medicine without valid medical prescriptions or distributing substandard or counterfeit drugs. Only a limited number of studies have been published on Internet pharmacies with regard to patient safety, professionalism, long-term follow-up, and pharmaceutical legitimacy verification.

          Objective

          In this study, we selected, evaluated, and followed 136 Internet pharmacy websites aiming to identify indicators of professional online pharmacy service and online medication safety.

          Methods

          An Internet search was performed by simulating the needs of potential customers of online pharmacies. A total of 136 Internet pharmacy websites were assessed and followed for four years. According to the LegitScript database, relevant characteristics such as longevity, time of continuous operation, geographical location, displayed contact information, prescription requirement, medical information exchange, and pharmaceutical legitimacy verification were recorded and evaluated.

          Results

          The number of active Internet pharmacy websites decreased; 23 of 136 (16.9%) online pharmacies ceased operating within 12 months and only 67 monitored websites (49.3%) were accessible at the end of the four-year observation period. However, not all operated continuously, as about one-fifth (31/136) of all observed online pharmacy websites were inaccessible provisionally. Thus, only 56 (41.2%) Internet-based pharmacies were continuously operational. Thirty-one of the 136 online pharmacies (22.8%) had not provided any contact details, while only 59 (43.4%) displayed all necessary contact information on the website. We found that the declared physical location claims did not correspond to the area of domain registration (according to IP address) for most websites. Although the majority (120/136, 88.2%) of the examined Internet pharmacies distributed various prescription-only medicines, only 9 (6.6%) requested prior medical prescriptions before purchase. Medical information exchange was generally ineffective as 52 sites (38.2%) did not require any medical information from patients. The product information about the medicines was generally (126/136, 92.6%) not displayed adequately, and the contents of the patient information leaflet were incomplete in most cases (104/136, 76.5%). Numerous online operators (60/136, 44.1%) were defined as rogue Internet pharmacies, but no legitimate Internet-based pharmacies were among them. One site (0.7%) was yet unverified, 23 (16.9%) were unapproved, while the remaining (52/136, 38.2%) websites were not available in the LegitScript database. Contrary to our prior assumptions, prescription or medical information requirement, or the indication of contact information on the website, does not seem to correlate with “rogue pharmacy” status using the LegitScript online pharmacy verification standards. Instead, long-term continuous operation strongly correlated ( P<.001) with explicit illegal activity.

          Conclusions

          Most Internet pharmacies in our study sample were illegal sites within the definition of “rogue” Internet pharmacy. These websites violate professional, legal, and ethical standards and endanger patient safety. This work shows evidence that online pharmacies that act illegally appear to have greater longevity than others, presumably because there is no compelling reason for frequent change in order to survive. We also found that one in five websites revived (closed down and reopened again within four years) and no-prescription sites with limited medicine and patient information are flourishing.

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          Most cited references 45

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          European citizens' use of E-health services: A study of seven countries

          Background European citizens are increasingly being offered Internet health services. This study investigated patterns of health-related Internet use, its consequences, and citizens' expectations about their doctors' provision of e-health services. Methods Representative samples were obtained from the general populations in Norway, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Poland, Portugal and Latvia. The total sample consisted of 7934 respondents. Interviews were conducted by telephone. Results 44 % of the total sample, 71 % of the Internet users, had used the Internet for health purposes. Factors that positively affected the use of Internet for health purposes were youth, higher education, white-collar or no paid job, visits to the GP during the past year, long-term illness or disabilities, and a subjective assessment of one's own health as good. Women were the most active health users among those who were online. One in four of the respondents used the Internet to prepare for or follow up doctors' appointments. Feeling reassured after using the Internet for health purposes was twice as common as experiencing anxieties. When choosing a new doctor, more than a third of the sample rated the provision of e-health services as important. Conclusion The users of Internet health services differ from the general population when it comes to health and demographic variables. The most common way to use the Internet in health matters is to read information, second comes using the net to decide whether to see a doctor and to prepare for and follow up on doctors' appointments. Hence, health-related use of the Internet does affect patients' use of other health services, but it would appear to supplement rather than to replace other health services.
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            The global counterfeit drug trade: patient safety and public health risks.

            Counterfeit drugs are a global problem with significant and well-documented consequences for global health and patient safety, including drug resistance and patient deaths. This multibillion-dollar industry does not respect geopolitical borders, and threatens public health in both rich and resource-poor nations alike. The epidemiology of counterfeits is also wide in breadth and scope, including thousands of counterfeit incidents per year, encompassing all types of therapeutic classes, and employing a complex global supply chain network enabling this illegal activity. In addition, information technologies available through the Internet and sales via online pharmacies have allowed the criminal element to thrive in an unregulated environment of anonymity, deception, and lack of adequate enforcement. Though recent global enforcement efforts have led to arrests of online counterfeit sellers, such actions have not stemmed supplies from illegal online sellers or kept up with their creativity in illegally selling their products. To address this issue, we propose a global policy framework utilizing public-private partnership models with centralized surveillance reporting that would enable cooperation and coordination to combat this global health crisis. Copyright © 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
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              Quality of Online Pharmacies and Websites Selling Prescription Drugs: A Systematic Review

              Background Online pharmacies are companies that sell pharmaceutical preparations, including prescription-only drugs, on the Internet. Very little is known about this phenomenon because many online pharmacies operate from remote countries, where legal bases and business practices are largely inaccessible to international research. Objective The aim of the study was to perform an up-to-date and comprehensive review of the scientific literature focusing on the broader picture of online pharmacies by scanning several scientific and institutional databases, with no publication time limits. Methods We searched 4 electronic databases up to January 2011 and the gray literature on the Internet using the Google search engine and its tool Google Scholar. We also investigated the official websites of institutional agencies (World Health Organization, and US and European centers for disease control and drug regulation authorities). We focused specifically on online pharmacies offering prescription-only drugs. We decided to analyze and report only articles with original data, in order to review all the available data regarding online pharmacies and their usage. Results We selected 193 relevant articles: 76 articles with original data, and 117 articles without original data (editorials, regulation articles, or the like) including 5 reviews. The articles with original data cover samples of online pharmacies in 47 cases, online drug purchases in 13, consumer characteristics in 15, and case reports on adverse effects of online drugs in 12. The studies show that random samples with no specific limits to prescription requirements found that at least some websites sold drugs without a prescription and that an online questionnaire was a frequent tool to replace prescription. Data about geographical characteristics show that this information can be concealed in many websites. The analysis of drug offer showed that online a consumer can get virtually everything. Regarding quality of drugs, researchers very often found inappropriate packaging and labeling, whereas the chemical composition usually was not as expected in a minority of the studies’ samples. Regarding consumers, the majority of studies found that not more than 6% of the samples had bought drugs online. Conclusions Online pharmacies are an important phenomenon that is continuing to spread, despite partial regulation, due to intrinsic difficulties linked to the impalpable and evanescent nature of the Web and its global dimension. To enhance the benefits and minimize the risks of online pharmacies, a 2-level approach could be adopted. The first level should focus on policy, with laws regulating the phenomenon at an international level. The second level needs to focus on the individual. This approach should aim to increase health literacy, required for making appropriate health choices, recognizing risks and making the most of the multitude of opportunities offered by the world of medicine 2.0.
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                Author and article information

                Contributors
                Journal
                J Med Internet Res
                JMIR
                Journal of Medical Internet Research
                JMIR Publications Inc. (Toronto, Canada )
                1439-4456
                1438-8871
                September 2013
                10 September 2013
                : 15
                : 9
                Affiliations
                1Department of Pharmaceutics Medical School University of Pecs PecsHungary
                Author notes
                Corresponding Author: Andras Fittler fittler.andras@ 123456pte.hu
                Article
                v15i9e199
                10.2196/jmir.2606
                3785996
                24021777
                ©Andras Fittler, Gergely Bősze, Lajos Botz. Originally published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (http://www.jmir.org), 10.09.2013.

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work, first published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, is properly cited. The complete bibliographic information, a link to the original publication on http://www.jmir.org/, as well as this copyright and license information must be included.

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