Validating medications: A consumer responsibility?
Access to medications is a vital aspect of maintaining healthy lives, and the urge to invest in personal health has only grown since the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic also resulted in a rise in online pharmacies, raising new concerns about consumer safety and the authentication of medications.
Public worry about counterfeit drugs making their way into our homes, pharmacies, and lives is more prevalent than ever, and for good reason: the problem is intensifying. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 10% of all medical products imported from low- and middle-income countries are substandard or fake.
As the number of counterfeit medications rises, so does the need for verifiable and reliable ways to authenticate the real ones. But who is responsible for doing so? While most responsibility should likely fall to the drug manufacturers and pharmacists handling the medications, validating the safety of these medications often falls to the consumer, especially when purchasing medications online. We need to change this dynamic, empowering pharmacists to authenticate medications before they ever reach consumers.
The rapid growth of counterfeit medications
According to a US Senate report, between 2021 and 2022 drug shortages increased by approximately 30%. These shortages occur for many reasons, from delays and discontinuations, to the unavailability of ingredients, but recently some shortages have also been spurred by misuse. For example, diabetes medications, such as Ozempic, are now being used for weight loss, while actual diabetics continue to search for their needed medication. This lack of access to medications is negatively impacting consumers in need, with some seeking alternative sources, placing them at greater risk of encountering counterfeits.
Additionally, with costs increasing for medications, many of which are vital, people are compelled to look beyond their local pharmacy. In extreme cases, this has meant looking internationally, which can be dangerous. Earlier this year, the US Department of State warned against Americans purchasing medications in Mexico, due to increased counterfeits. But even without crossing the border, many patients are still being pushed toward alternatives to get their medication, whether for cost or convenience. Ranging from health spas to online pharmacies, these options are riddled with inconsistencies. In fact, a 2021 survey from ASOP Global Foundation estimated that a disturbing 95% of online pharmacies operate illegally. Consumers are ill-equipped to know which are scrupulous.
Responsibility for accuracy and safety
With these gaps and an over-reliance on consumer responsibility, laced medications and overdoses are running rampant. Patients need and should be given medication that has already been vetted through trusted safety resources and validation processes, in order to give them peace of mind that what they’re buying and ingesting is the real thing. Without this assurance, they are tasked with validating their own medications – if they can find a way to do it accurately. While great resources are publicly available online to aid in this verification, like the FDA’s BeSafeRx, Fraud.org, and Buy Safely from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), most people are not aware of these resources or the fact that they may need them.
The reality, however, is that consumers should not be tasked with making sure their medication is safe and accurate, especially with the many solutions and tools now available to pharma companies to guarantee counterfeit drugs never reach their customers. More pharmaceutical companies are – and should – be more proactive about verification. Suppliers must strive to assure authenticity, security, consumer trust, and safety throughout the entire medication buying journey.
There are several proactive steps companies can take to ensure counterfeits become a problem of the past for consumers:
- Invest in a variety of cost-effective and scalable tools for validation and protection. This can include digital watermarks, which can be combined with other security measures such as seals, inks, and other protective technology that can reveal tampering and prove authenticity.
- Utilise resources and support from agencies and groups that are helping stop the counterfeiting of drugs, such as The Fight the Fakes Alliance, The Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, and the NABP.
- Providing education to consumers on challenges faced and steps taken by the company to combat the issue of counterfeit drugs within the industry.
With a variety of options available, pharmaceutical companies and operators should proactively utilise multiple security layers. They owe it to their customers to protect them.
Ultimately, pharmaceutical companies need to be responsible for maintaining the authenticity of their products, not the consumer. Personal responsibility is still a factor, but realistically, those creating medications need to protect the consumers purchasing and consuming their products. There are brand reputation and legal risks to consider. Fortunately, these companies can enlist the help of product digitisation solutions, including digital watermarking, which can be easily incorporated into existing medication packaging without interfering with existing security measures like seals and inks. Secure digital watermarks are cost-effective and scalable and empower companies to respond quickly to security breaches to protect the health and lives of consumers.
Regardless of issues within the supply chain or the tools they use to solve the problem, it is the supplier’s responsibility to proactively strive for reliable and safe medication that is authenticated before ever reaching the consumer.