There is significant attention and interest from the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) in online pharmacies.  Since 2019, the GPhC has taken enforcement action against numerous pharmacy owners and superintendent pharmacists for alleged failings of its standards for online pharmacies and prescribing.

Sanctions can be severe where a pharmacist’s fitness to practise is found impaired.  It is important that pharmacists understand the GPhC’s standards to avoid sanctions.

GPhC & Online Pharmacies

The GPhC acknowledge that “increasingly people are choosing to access healthcare services online” that can hold “significant benefits” but “there are also significant risks that need to be managed to protect patient safety.”

In response, the GPhC has drawn up standards for registered pharmacies and guidance for registered pharmacies providing pharmacy services at a distance, including on the internet.

Pharmacy owners and superintendent pharmacists must follow the standards and guidance and ensure all staff have been trained on these requirements.  We have provided an overview of the standards on Kings View Resolutions.

The common themes in these cases include:

  • medicines being prescribed to patients on the basis of an online questionnaire alone, with no direct interaction between the prescriber and either the patient or their GP 
  • prescribing of high-risk medications or medications which require monitoring without adequate safeguards
  • prescribing of medicines outside the prescriber’s scope of practice 
  • high volumes of prescriptions being issued by the prescriber in short periods of time.

Enforcement action against online pharmacies

The GPhC reported that over 30% of its open fitness to practise cases relating to online pharmacy, which “is disproportionate to the sector of the market that online services occupy.”

GPhC enforcement action since April 2019[1]:

  • 680 inspections of online pharmacies and only 72% met all standards
  • 54 distinct online pharmacies to address patient safety risks; this includes 57 conditions notices and 12 improvement notices
  • there have been 1985 concerns related to online pharmacies raised to Fitness to Practise 
  • currently 263 open online Fitness to Practise cases, which represents over 18% of its open caseload 
  • 10 registrants who are subject to an interim orders who were working in 5 different online pharmacies where concerns have been raised.

Interim orders allow for a pharmacist to be suspended or made subject to conditions at work, whilst the investigation is carried out. The interim order will be recorded on the register and will remain there for the duration of the order.

GPhC registered pharmacies, enforcement and fitness to practise

The GPhC have statutory powers to act “to protect the public and to uphold public confidence in pharmacy” if it receives concerns about a registered pharmacy.  These powers include enforcement options and enforcement powers:

  • Improvement action plans – Generally the first enforcement option and where there is no immediate risk to the public or patients. Improvement action plans require pharmacy owners to develop an improvement plan, setting out what they will do, within a set time, to put right the issues and meet the standards.
  • Conditions on registration – Registered pharmacies can have conditions attached to their registration when this is necessary for the purpose of “securing the safe and effective practice of pharmacy at those premises”. Unless there is deemed to be an immediate public safety risk, pharmacy owners will have “reasonable notice” in writing of the condition(s) to be imposed and failure to comply with conditions can lead to an improvement notice.
  • Improvement notices – Where the GPhC have reasonable grounds for believing there is a failure to meet standards for registered pharmacies, or a failure to meet conditions relating to the standards, they can serve an improvement notice. Pharmacy owners are responsible for making sure that the improvement work is carried out within the timeframe set out in the improvement notice (at least 28 days).

Kings View Chambers

Kings View now has unparalleled experience in the GPhC fitness to practise arena – particularly relating to online and remote prescribing and dispensing. I would encourage those seeking representation to research properly, as undoing bad decisions in such matters is very difficult.

“Because this was one of the first cases relating to remote and online pharmacy, the GPhC had yet to decide how it wished to regulate the arena. Online and remote GPhC cases are complex. We have since had findings of no impairment in three other substantive cases, with more being listed currently.”

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Disclaimer: This article is for guidance purposes only. Kings View Chambers accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any action taken, or not taken, in relation to this article. You should seek the appropriate legal advice having regard to your own particular circumstances.