Easy access to drugs online encouraging self-diagnosis?

  • Priyanka Vora and Aishwarya Iyer, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: May 04, 2015 15:47 IST

The presence of medicines for sale on online platforms has increased the practice of self-diagnosis, said doctors who have witnessed a surge in patients having side-effects from drugs they bought without a prescription.

“I have treated many patients who have been on anti-depressant drugs and sleeping pills even before they have seen a doctor,” said Dr NN Raju, general secretary, Indian Psychiatry Society. “As the person does not need a prescription to buy drugs online, they continue to self-medicate. Some patients self-medicate for years and land up at the clinic only after the situation gets out of control.”

Last week, the state Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) registered a criminal complaint on officials of an e-commerce company website that was selling drugs such as oral contraceptive pills.

The FDA is now in the process of booking another e-retailer that was found to be selling abortion pills which, according to doctors, can even lead to death if not taken under a doctor’s supervision. The state FDA has asked such websites to furnish their records for the past few years, to check for online sale of drugs. According to the Drugs and Cosmetic Act, drugs cannot be sold without a licence issued by the appropriate authority.

E-retailers said they ask buyers for prescriptions before selling medicines, but FDA officials said that despite rules that prohibit sale of any medicine without a prescription, drugs are available easily. Apart from abortion pills, sleeping pills can be bought from e-retailers without prescriptions.

Experts said not just the availability of medications online, but the online-marketing of drugs is also proving to be harmful. Take the case of Anamika Patel, 40,who after coming across an online ad for weight-loss pills, ordered a strip that cost Rs3,000. Soon after she started taking the weight-loss pills, she realised she was bleeding profusely, even when she was not menstruating. “When I stopped the pills, the bleeding also stopped. When I started taking the pills again, I bled again,” said Patel.

When Patel consulted her doctor for the bleeding, she was told it was the side effects of the pills.

According to the Drugs and Magic Remedies Act, 1954, any advertisement that publicises magic pills or tall claims to have medicinal properties is an offence, but the practice is still rampant.

Some buyers said the medicines did not cause any side-effects. A 25-year-old Girgaum resident bought herbal supplements for weight loss online. “I took these capsules for a month. There was no effect. It cost me Rs5,500 for a bottle of capsules,” said the interior designer.

But doctors said it is dangerous to buy drugs online without consulting a doctor. Dr Pradeep Shah, physician, Fortis Hospital, Mulund, said he has treated patients who self-diagnose using information on the internet.

“Some patients come to me with their diagnosis and a few even know the name of drugs. At times, drugs purchased online could give some relief and patients then continue taking the drugs,” said Dr Shah, adding many patients don’t want to renew their prescription and hence resort to online purchase.

“Of those women who take these tablets sold online for abortion, 5% go through incomplete abortion, which can be dangerous,” said Dr Kedar Ganla, a fertility consultant physician. (Names in case studies changed on request)

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