Drugs in cyberspace

With the average consumer already using the Internet to buy everything from books and CDs to hardware and automotive equipment, using the Web to bypass the pharmacy seems like a natural evolution. In fact, the time for Internet pharmacies may already be here–judging by the barrage of customers who flooded the Net to check out Redmond, Wash.-based Drugstore. com when it opened its online drugstore for business in February. (The site had to shut down temporarily because of all the traffic.)

While the most publicized virtual drugstores are generally U.S.-based, Canadian pharmacists aren’t waiting on the sidelines. Doug McKeen, managing director of the Ottawa-based Pharmasave Apothecary, says his pharmacy has had an online presence since 1994. (However, the online store–www.glebe-apothecary. com–only recently implemented a “secure” system for purchasing products online.) McKeen says he has three full-time employees devoted to the “virtual” side of the business. Customers log onto the website, order a product, and then pick it up themselves or have it shipped by mail or courier. (Apothecary offers free prescription delivery for local customers.)

McKeen says 90 per cent of his virtual business is U.S.-based–over-the-counter products that may be discontinued in the States or that are a great deal less expensive this side of the border. In terms of prescription drugs, McKeen says his store deals primarily with renewal orders. “People are telling us they want their renewals but they don’t want to have to come in and wait in line,” he says. “This way we have it processed and dropped off at their office.” For now, McKeen says he is avoiding any online transactions that could pose problems, such as new prescriptions that require counselling. “With renewals you don’t need that kind of hand holding.”

Still, McKeen says he’d like to open up a dialogue with the “powers that be” at the pharmacy regulatory bodies to determine a set of guidelines for the operation of online pharmacies. “This technology isn’t going away and it has huge potential,” says McKeen. “We’re using it to augment our already existing pharmacy services.”

Pharmacist Custer Tang of Calgary has operated his virtual drugstore, globaldrugs.com, for the last two years. He says he uses the site–which features some 1,000 drugs–for the distribution of OTC products, particularly to Canadians living outside of Canada who want products they’re familiar with. Tang says he’s keeping a “low profile” for the time being but would like to get into prescription sales eventually. “I’m waiting until I know everything with the proper authorities is worked out regarding online pharmacies,” he says.

Meanwhile, Barbara Wells, executive director of the National Association of Pharmacy Regulatory Authorities (NAPRA) says her group has been collecting material and will review the issue at a meeting this month. “As far as NAPRA’s concerned we’ll be looking [at online pharmacies] in terms of their compliance with the standards of practice,” she says. “We have to figure out if there is a collaborative wish to look at this issue on a national level.”

Jeff Poston, director of research and practice development for the Canadian Pharmacists Association (CPhA), anticipates cyber drugstores will prompt the same kind of concerns that were raised when mail-order pharmacies first sprang up, such as the lack of face-to-face dialogue when dealing with patients. He expects it will be a select few with specialized practices who will tap into the online market–and be successful. “It’s not a cheap proposition, setting up a website,” he says. “It requires quite a bit of time and investment and I can’t see the average pharmacist getting into it.”