An online service that offers prescription drugs without a visit to a GP has been launched amid warnings it could put patients at risk.

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Health experts have expressed concern that doctors are selling drugs on the internet without meeting patients face to face or without access to their medical records.

NSW-based prescription service Doctus promotes itself as a convenient and safe alternative to visiting the GP. It offers 450 medications that have ”minimal potential for abuse or adverse side effects”, including drugs for blood pressure, cholesterol, emphysema, asthma, STDs and non-narcotic pain relief.

Patients complete an online questionnaire that is reviewed by a doctor. If approved, they are charged $25 for the prescription plus the cost of buying the drugs and postage.

Doctus director Rodney Beckwith said the service was not intended to replace GP visits, but that information provided by patients in face-to-face consultations was ”not intrinsically any more reliable than the information they provided to us online”.

Dr Beckwith said the organisation used genuine medicines sourced from an Australian pharmacy partner.

A separate, British-based service available in Australia sells scripts for the contraceptive pill and erectile dysfunction medications including Viagra.

The advent of web-based prescriptions comes as the Abbott government is attempting to introduce a $7 GP co-payment, a step that some experts have warned may dissuade people from seeing a doctor.

Medical experts said online prescription services increased the risk of patients self-diagnosing and could discourage patients from going back to their doctor to make sure medications were not causing adverse reactions. They also raised concerns about the ability to confirm patients’ identities online.

The Australian Medical Association’s Brian Morton said it could take a patient’s death for online prescription services to be more strictly regulated.

”I would think soon we’re going to see a disaster,” he said. ”It’s fragmenting care and not having proper continuity of care to follow up the reason why you’re taking the medication.”

Pharmacy Guild of Australia president George Tambassis said the worst-case scenario for patients using online prescription services was that some imported drugs did not meet Australian standards.

”Until something really horrendous happens we don’t realise how important the dispensing process is,” he said. ”Even if the [medications] seem safe there could be complications because you haven’t got the history of that patient or know whether they’re using other medications.”

A federal Health Department spokeswoman said while there would be concerns about patients being routinely prescribed medication without face-to-face consultations, it was legal with a valid prescription.

Henry Sapiecha

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