Are online pharmacies killing desperate patients?

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Nigel Parsley, a Suffolk coroner, has expressed the need for action to be taken against online health providers that dispense medication in order to prevent further deaths from occurring.

Debbie Headspeath, 41, from Ipswich, was initially prescribed opiate painkillers by her GP in 2008 after suffering severe back pain. As her GP tried to coax her off the medication, Debbie started looking online for doctors who would prescribe her the painkillers.

She spent over £10,000 on online pharmacy websites whilst still being prescribed smaller doses of codeine from her GP.

As a result of taking such large, unmonitored amounts of codeine, Debbie died after suffering lung complications which came about as a result of damage to her pancreas which the codeine had caused.

The coroner stated his three main concerns surrounding online pharmacy websites:

  • without having a single database that records all prescriptions, inside and outside of the NHS, GP’s and other health professionals have no way of knowing which other medications the patient has already been prescribed
  • online health providers are able to avoid regulation by England’s Care Quality Commission (CQC) by being based outside of the country
  • earlier this year, the General Pharmaceutical Council stated that for high-risk medicines such as opiates, prescriptions should be checked by the individual’s GP before the medication is sent out. However this guidance was only advisory and not compulsory.

The CQC have said that many online health providers have moved their headquarters outside of England to countries such as Romania since 2017, when the health watchdog began inspecting such online services.

Kate Smith, a solicitor in the medical negligence team at Ashtons Legal, comments: “This is a very sad story which includes very shocking details regarding the ability to obtain opiate drugs so easily via online health providers. What this case has highlighted is the importance of the inquest process and the coroner’s involvement with establishing how Debbie Headspeath came about her death. Regulatory gaps have been identified and although shocking, it is reassuring to read that the senior coroner of Suffolk has been proactive in contacting the relevant bodies to ensure that the regulatory gaps identified are addressed and further action is taken to ensure that this does not happen to someone else. If anyone does find themselves faced with a similar situation or the inquest process, please make sure legal advice is obtained to see whether any support can be given.”

 

 

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