Since online pet pharmacies started taking your orders a couple of decades ago, they’ve been a thorn in the side of the veterinary profession. That’s when our clients started buying their drugs from Dr. Google — sometimes even without a prescription.
Fast forward to the present, and all our fears have been realized: Drug dispensing often happens without a veterinarian’s recommendation (at the shadier places, anyway), counterfeit products (read: fake, probably unhelpful, and potentially unsafe) are commonplace enough for me to have personally borne witness to their existence, and third party diversions (drugs and products from the “gray” markets) make a mockery of things like expiration dates and other FDA regulations.
To make matters worse, my profession’s complaints have until recently gone unheeded. Historically, that’s been because it’s hard to credibly criticize our competitors. After all, it stands to reason that veterinarians might complain about online pharmacies when these outlets out-compete us on prices, and our hospitals inevitably lose out on drug and product sales we’d formerly relied on.
It would be easy to discount my profession’s role in condemning some online pharmacy practices, sour grapes-style, were it not for a reality we all know to be the case: As much a boon to information technology as the Internet’s been, it’s undeniably awash with scumbags, charlatans, thieves, and snake oil salesmen. Surely you’ll have guessed that Internet pharmacies of all descriptions — human and veterinary, alike — are not exempt from these designations.
Indeed, human-oriented Internet pharmacies have long been regarded by the FDA as a major source of concern. The free flow of drugs may mean better prices for consumers, but they also mean more opportunities for scoundrels and bottom feeders. How else to explain the millions of Oxycontin, Viagra, and Vicodin doses that once traded hands — sight unseen, sans prescription — before the FDA and DEA cracked down?
And still it happens. Unlicensed shops, fake drugs, homemade compounds. They’re out there for those willing to take their risks, or are stupid enough not to know any better.
But most of us DO know better. Which means we now know enough to source our drugs from reputable outlets. For most of us that means the big names: Walgreens, Publix, Target, CVS. But you should also know that for those among us willing to seek out smaller outlets, there’s still a safe, reliable way. It’s called VIPPS (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites). This brand of certification, administrated by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, means the pharmacy has met a stringent set of guidelines that qualifies it as reliable and responsible.
Unfortunately, only a couple of online veterinary pharmacies have made the grade so far. Which is probably why the FDA is again up in arms about Internet pharmacies. Because now that VIPPS has been well-accepted by the human pharmacy industry and a critical mass of savvy consumers, the FDA’s turning its attention to the red-headed stepchild of the pharmacy world … ours.
In so doing, the FDA has issued a five-point bulletin describing the approach we should all take when buying anything as important as a drug online. Using the AWARE acronym, it's working hard to ensure you don't fall prey to the all-too-common scams even the biggest online pharmacy players are wont to perpetrate. Here's how it goes:
A – Ask Your Veterinarian
W – Watch for Red Flags (e.g., "No prescription needed!")
A – Always Check for Site Accreditation (i.e., VIPPS)
R – Report Problems and Suspicious Online Pharmacies (contact this FDA page)
E – Educate Yourself about Online Pharmacies (here's the FDA's basic veterinary page)
For a detailed explanation of these five points, head over to the FDA's new AWARE site. I'm sure they're appropriating the same information from the human medical arena, but if it worked once, maybe it'll work again. Here's hoping the FDA will help the veterinary community get a little traction on this incredibly important safety issue.
Dr. Patty Khuly