Gaps in legislation, which potentially allow online pharmacies to escape regulation, are being looked at by the professional regulator, it has confirmed.
The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) said in a statement issued on 7 June 2018 that it was holding “ongoing discussions” with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and other regulators about potential legal loopholes.
It was also reviewing its guidance for registered pharmacies that provide services at a distance — including over the internet — and said it would be publishing a discussion document “shortly”.
The moves came to light as a senior figure at NHS Digital revealed that online prescribing services only had to register with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) — whose regulatory responsibilities include online primary care services — if they employed a listed healthcare professional, which does not include pharmacists.
Mohammed Hussain, senior clinical lead at NHS Digital told The Pharmaceutical Journal: “Providers who employ only pharmacist prescribers can exploit this gap in the regulations, meaning that the systems and processes used are not under the remit of any regulator although the individuals themselves are regulated by the GPhC.”
Sandra Gidley, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s English Pharmacy Board called on the GPhC to look at the issue “urgently”.
She said: “This is an evolving market. When CQC regulation was set up, there were a few internet [primary care] providers, and far less legitimate prescribing over the internet than there is now.
“Until recently there have been very few pharmacist prescribers. With more pharmacists taking the prescribing qualification that number is going to increase. One would hope that all abide by professional standards but sometimes that doesn’t happen.”
The GPhC reiterated that any registered pharmacist must meet its professional standards and that it has the power to regulate registered pharmacies, including those which operate online.
Earlier this year, a GPhC council workshop discussed the development of online pharmacies, finding that “change was fast-paced” and that internet pharmacies were a “complex area”.
A report of the workshop, included in the GPhC’s May council papers, said: “There were a number of fitness-to-practise cases at the moment involving online pharmacies, and there were ongoing discussions with the DHSC about regulatory gaps.”
A spokesperson for the CQC said its role in the area of online prescribing concerned Regulated Activities being performed by a particular service. A provider registers with the CQC for the Regulated Activities that they carry out.
The Regulated Activity for providing primary care online is typically Treatment of Disease, Disorder or Injury, which must be carried out by a listed healthcare professional as set out in the CQC’s Scope of Registration document.
The list does not include pharmacists.