UK online doctor firm fined for providing 'risky' unlicensed service

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An online doctor's service operating in the UK has been fined after pleading guilty to providing online consultation and prescription services without being registered with the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

The service – which provided powerful prescription medicines including high strength co-codamol, pregabalin and gabapentin to patients – exposed patients to "a significant risk of harm," according to the CQC.

Stockport-based Pharmacorp – also known as Medicine Direct – used doctors based in Romania to prescribe medicines to patients on the strength of an online questionnaire, with the drugs sent out from the company's premises.

The approach posed a "real risk of misdiagnosis," according to the CQC, as the medicines were prescribed without access to the patient's health records and so the doctors would have been unable to confirm that the information provided in the questionnaire was accurate. It also concluded that the service was misleading as it suggested the scrips were assessed by doctors in the UK.

The CQC requires digital providers, who use doctor consultation services to be registered as a provider for the regulated activity of the treatment of disease, disorder or injury.

Pharmacorp was fined £3,500 at Tameside Magistrates' Court, and ordered to pay £10,000 costs and a £170 victim surcharge as a result of the prosecution, taking the total penalty to £13,670 (around $18,600).

"I hope this outcome sends a clear message to others that where we find providers operating outside of the law, we will always use our enforcement powers to protect people and hold them to account to stop poor and illegal practice," said Emma Boger, CQC's head of registration.

"The registration process is important to appropriately assess services before they care for people," she added.

"Services are then monitored and inspected to ensure that they continue to meet standards that people should be able to expect. Unregistered services operate without oversight, putting people at risk of harm."

This isn't the first time that the CQC has been forced to deploy its enforcement powers to protect the public from providers of online prescription services.

In 2017, it suspended the registration of one online provider, imposed conditions on two, and instructed the fourth to improve its practices, after uncovering insufficient identity checks, poor recording of medical histories, inappropriate prescriptions and lack of communication with a patient's GP.