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Consumers Should Exercise Care When Purchasing Health Products Online

Q: How are people using the Internet for their health care?
A: People use the Internet to obtain health information as well as to order medication, contact lenses, medical tests and other health-related items.

Q: What are some of the benefits of purchasing health products online?
A: Purchasing health products online is convenient, eliminating trips to the pharmacy.

Some sites enable online consultations with a licensed pharmacist from the privacy of your home, and health websites provide a great deal of medical information, including references to other sources. Sometimes, although not always, health products purchased online are less expensive. In any event, the Internet offers an easy way to do comparison-shopping.

Q: What are some of the dangers of buying health products online?
A: It's hard to tell whether the site you are dealing with is reputable. Scam artists can create impressive-looking websites. Those who order products from disreputable website operations run the risk of getting a contaminated or counterfeit product, the wrong product, the wrong dose or no product at all. Be wary of:

  • sites that offer a drug or device for the first time without a physical exam, sell a prescription drug or device without a prescription or with a prescription written on the basis only of an online questionnaire, or sell drugs not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is illegal to provide prescription drugs without a valid prescription and it is dangerous to get prescription drugs this way. You can get the wrong drug or a counterfeit drug, miss getting other more effective treatment for your condition, not have your condition properly diagnosed, or have an adverse reaction from the drug or interactions with other medications.
  • sites that may not adequately safeguard your personal information.
  • sites that promise "miracle cures" or provide testimonials of amazing results. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • foreign websites. There is less protection in dealing with these sites.

Q: What should consumers look for when shopping for health products online?
A: The FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) both provide consumer tips on their websites (www.fda.gov; www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov).  Both agencies recommend that consumers check with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (www.nabp.net) to determine if a drug site is a licensed pharmacy in good standing and meets the other certification standards established by the NABP. Sites meeting these standards may display the VIPPS (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site) seal. Look for:

  • sites that provide access to a registered pharmacist to answer questions.
  • sites that provide a U.S. address and phone number to contact if you have a question.
  • posted customer service, prescription verification, and privacy and security policies.

    In addition, you may check with the Ohio State Board of Pharmacy to ensure that an online pharmacy has the applicable licenses to be operating in Ohio.

Q: What else can consumers do to protect themselves?
A: Talk to your doctor before using any medication for the first time, to get the appropriate diagnostic tests for any conditions you may have, and to get a recommendation on any medical device you are thinking of buying online.

2/3/2014

This "Law You Can Use" consumer legal information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was originally prepared by Catherine T. Dunlay and Naomi H. Maletz of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, and updated by Naomi Maletz. 

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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