Outfits selling medicines through online portals will now have to adhere to a “conduct of code”. The Internet Pharmacy Association’s Self Regulating Code of Conduct that was released on Monday asks e-pharmacies to process scheduled medicines “only against a valid copy of prescription (physical or scanned) of a registered medical practitioner and ensure that no schedule X and other sensitive habit-forming medicines are processed through their platform”. The online pharmacy sector has also been asked to devise mechanisms to address consumer queries or grievances. The sector’s decision to put in place self-governing mechanisms is a welcome step given that the safety protocols of e-pharmacies have been questioned of late. More, however, needs to be done to ensure that the pharma business — both online outfits and those that sell prescription drugs over the counter — adheres to standard medical protocols. Pharmacies in India have acquired the reputation of having a relaxed approach to prescription drugs.
The Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, requires a retailer to check a licensed and registered doctor’s prescription in the presence of a pharmacist. But it is common knowledge that a vast majority of retailers in the country do not meet this requirement. Prescription drug abuse — using dated prescriptions or using medicines legally bought by a person who no longer needs them — is also rampant. There are, however, no credible figures that convey the exact magnitude of the problem. The last survey undertaken 15 years ago, was a part of a broader survey on drug and narcotic abuse in the country, and it did not provide any figures. A more comprehensive survey could be a good first step to track the extent of prescription drug abuse in India.
E-pharmacies present a different order of problem. There are less than 15 such pharmacies in the country today. However, this segment is poised to expand. Industry estimates reckon that $18 billion e-pharma market is expected to grow three times by 2020. The Drug and Cosmetics Act, 1940, is obviously not equipped to deal with this business. The guidelines issued recently are a good first step. But there should be mechanisms that allow proper tracking and monitoring of sales of drugs, check the authenticity of online pharmacists and scrutinise prescriptions and details of patients. Proper care should also be taken to ensure patients’ privacy. Online portals can aggregate supplies, making otherwise-hard-to-find medicines available to consumers across the country. But they need to be regulated well.