Ordering prescriptions from an online pharmacy can be a convenient and cost-effective way to lower your health care expenses.
But there are drawbacks to obtaining medications online, from the lack of personal interaction with a pharmacist to potential quality issues and unexpected conflicts with other medications.
Considering taking your pharmacy trips online? Here are some key considerations and questions to keep in mind.
Want to save at the pharmacy? Consider a prescription discount card.
Think about the potential safety hazards
There are various safety issues to consider when buying drugs online. These products are expected to help a specific health condition, said Alam Hallan, registered pharmacist and director of pharmacy at Guelph General Hospital.
It’s critical the products be free from contamination and effective in treating whatever condition they’re prescribed for. (Here's a breakdown of generic versus brand-name drugs.)
“The entire pharmaceutical industry has been built around these two principles, that these medications can cure or control your disease and that they are safe and free from any toxins and contaminants,” Hallan said.
Ensuring the medication is good quality
Look for an online pharmacy that’s licensed or accredited, said Hallan.
There are fake online pharmacies that work to make their websites look legitimate, according to the FDA. Consumers need to do their homework to confirm a website is reputable.
If you’re ordering from a pharmacy based in the U.S., check with the local state board of pharmacy or equivalent state agency to find out if the business has a state license. Learn more on the FDA’s website.
Research the pharmacy’s shipping process
Find out whether the online pharmacy has the proper processes to ensure medications are in good condition. The shipping process should be outlined on the pharmacy’s website.
“Make sure that your medications reach you under proper storage conditions. Extreme heat or cold can damage your medications or even introduce toxic degradation products as contamination in your medications,” said Hallan.
Sacrificing the personal touch
If you’re the type to consult with a pharmacist about medications, side-effects and other concerns, you may want to stick with an in-person provider, said Ruth Linden, founder and president of Tree of Life Health Advocates.
Some online medication providers allow you to speak with a pharmacist by telephone. But a face-to-face conversation with your local pharmacist may make you feel more comfortable, said Linden.
Who shouldn’t order prescriptions online
Online prescriptions are often best for patients who don’t have existing or complicated health issues, though that doesn’t mean other patients can’t obtain medications this way.
“Online prescription companies, as well as online pharmacies, have been hyper focused on identifying risky medical situations and supply chain issues in their onboarding process, and require early interactions with the online physician,” said Ted Chan, founder and CEO of CareDash.com, a healthcare directory.
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with a new condition and your medication regimen may change, your local pharmacy is likely the best choice, said Linden.
Possible prescription savings
While safety should come first, if you’re looking for a way to cut costs, ordering prescriptions online can ultimately be your best bet. Many health insurance plans have contracts with online pharmacies that involve charging you a two-month copay for a three-month supply of medication, said Linden.
“That translates into four free refills each year. What’s not to like about that?” said Linden.
Want to learn more? Here are eight ways to save on prescription drugs.