What exactly is an online pharmacy and what does it do?

Online pharmacies provide consultations with a doctor or prescribing pharmacist, to issue or renew private prescriptions (if suitable). If your consultation is approved, they will dispense your prescription, often delivering it straight to your door, the very next day.

They can treat a wide range of simple medical conditions that do not require a face-to-face appointment.

A legitimate online pharmacy will:

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Assess your
query and offer

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Issue a
prescription (if

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Check and
dispense your

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Send your
medication direct
to your door

When to use an online pharmacy

Accident and emergency

Accident & emergency

You should call 999 or head to an A&E department in a genuine, life-threatening emergency. A&E is not an alternative to a GP appointment[1].

Walk-in centre

Walk-in centre

You should go to walk-in centres or minor injury units if you need urgent medical attention but it's not a life-threatening situation[2].

NHS 111 Helpline

General practitioner

You should visit your GP for routine healthcare or new issues requiring face-to-face consultation. You will need to book an appointment before you attend[4].

General practioner

NHS 111 helpline

You should call the NHS line 111 or visit the site if you need urgent medical attention but it's not a life-threatening situation, or if you have an urgent medical problem but aren’t sure what to do or if your GP is closed[3].

High street pharmacies

High street pharmacies

If you have a medical issue that is not life-threatening and you don’t need immediate medical attention you can visit a pharmacy for help. Pharmacies can dispense prescriptions, sell over-the-counter medicines, and offer advice on minor health concerns.

Online pharmacies

Online pharmacies

Online pharmacies often provide the same NHS services as high street pharmacies. While often better suited to those with repeat medication, rather than those who need medication the same day, online pharmacies have added benefits, like more privacy, no wait times, and easier accessibility and convenience.

NHS surgeries & pharmacies are at over-capacity

The NHS Improvement official review of winter 2017/2018 revealed that: “In aggregate additional
GP activity provided over this period consistently exceeded planned capacity."


fewer GP practices in
England in 2018 than
there were in 2010 [5]


of GP vacancies in
surgeries around the UK [6]

0 days

is the average wait for a GP
appointment [7]


of people have to either
wait in their high street pharmacy for
their prescription or come
back later [8]

0 million

GP appointments could
be dealt with at home or
at a pharmacy [9]


of patients have to wait
longer than 14 days for
a routine appointment [10]

Online pharmacies can help alleviate the strain on GPs and the NHS because:

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They are accessible 24/7 and will deliver straight to your door, often the next day

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They can provide treatment for simple conditions that could take up a GP appointment

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They can increase access to healthcare for those who would normally struggle

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They offer direct access to medical advice with no wait times

Why people buy medicine online

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Over 28 million people in the UK would buy medication online [11]

10% of people would consider buying medicine online because they are too embarrassed to discuss the issue with their GP

22% of people would consider buying medicine online because they find it difficult to get an appointment with their GP

4% of people would consider buying medicine online because they can't travel to their GP

6% would consider buying medicines online for ‘other’ reasons

58% of people would not buy medicine online

This research was conducted by Atomik Research, on behalf of The Independent Pharmacy, among 2,003 UK adults aged 18+.

But it is important to stay safe

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of people do not know how to check whether a site selling medicine is safe and legitimate [11]

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Your guide to staying safe when ordering medicine
and prescriptions online

All UK online pharmacies must be registered, regulated, and comply with legislation designed to protect the public.

Some online pharmacies, however, have found ways of circumventing certain regulatory bodies and are still classed as legal online pharmacies, while others don’t comply with any regulations at all and operate completely illegally.

We want to help you feel confident in identifying the safest online pharmacies to use.

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0% of people aren’t aware that all UK online pharmacies are not regulated to the same extent [11]

Did you know there are three types of online pharmacies?

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CQC-registered online pharmacies

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Non CQC-regulated online pharmacies

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Illegal online prescribing sites (these sites aren't really classed as online pharmacies, they just pose as one to sell unregulated medicines)

Panorama scrutinises legal loopholes

Whilst most online pharmacies that prescribe medicine comply with the same regulator as your local GP, there are some that don’t.

These online pharmacies can potentially exploit loopholes so they can legally prescribe medicine, without being regulated by the same governing body as your local GP.

Panorama highlighted these legal loopholes in an episode that aired in August 2018. Watch the full documentary

CQC-registered vs non CQC-regulated online pharmacies

CQC registered

CQC-registered online

CQC-registered online pharmacies comply with the highest regulatory standards and offer the safest method of buying medication online.

Verify Register care quality
Learn more
CQC registered

Non CQC-regulated
online pharmacies

These online pharmacies are not within the scope of CQC regulation, which means they may not meet the same standards as other online pharmacies or your local GP.

Verify Register
Learn more
CQC registered

Illegal & unregistered
medicine sites

Illegal online prescribing sites sell completely unregulated medication online that could be dangerous to your health.

Learn more

of people think that UK online pharmacies that prescribe medicine should follow the same regulations as their GP. [11]

Regulation + safety checks
CQC registered
Non CQC-regulated
MHRA registered
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Table cross
GPhC registered
Table tick
Table tick
Table cross
Provides only genuine licensed medicines
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Table tick
Table cross
UK-based pharmacy
Table tick
Table tick
Table cross
CQC registered
Table tick
Table cross
Table cross
UK based doctors
Table tick
Table question
Table cross
Adequate insurance
Table tick
Table question
Table cross
Only supply low-risk medicines
Table tick
Table question
Table cross
Patient identity checks
Table tick
Table question
Table cross

The three UK regulatory bodies

There are three regulatory bodies that online pharmacies
should register and comply with, including:

The MHRA is a government body that authorises a website to sell medicines.

It is mandatory for all websites selling medicine to the public to register with the MHRA and display a digital logo on each page that displays a medicine.

This logo is used across the EU and shows the website is registered with the relevant regulatory body in their country and is legally permitted to sell medicines online.

In the UK, the logo should link through to their seller page on the MHRA’s public register.

It is just as necessary on a webpage selling paracetamol as it is on site selling prescription-only medicine.

Here is an example of the logo:

Verify logo
learn more

The General Pharmaceutical Council ensures online pharmacies provide only genuine licensed medicines and the pharmacy and its pharmacists are fit to practise in the UK.

It is a legal requirement for any pharmacy (high street or online) to register with the GPhC. The registration guarantees that the medicine you receive is legitimate and supplied from a registered UK pharmacy.

However, unlike the MHRA, the GPhC’s ‘registered pharmacy’ badge scheme is voluntary, so you may not see the logo on a online pharmacy’s website, even if it is registered.

If the online pharmacy’s website doesn’t display a ‘registered pharmacy’ logo then you can search for the pharmacy name on the GPhC register.

Here is an example of the GPhC’s ‘registered pharmacy’ logo:

Verify logo
learn more

The Care Quality Commission is the independent body responsible for the regulation of health and adult social care in England.

This means the CQC reviews UK healthcare services, including UK-based GPs and doctors.

The CQC reviews their practices to make sure they comply with the correct UK standards of care.

Every doctor at your local GP surgery will have been assessed by the CQC.

While the CQC assesses most doctors and GPs that work for online pharmacies, some online pharmacies employ doctors from outside of the UK, or use pharmacists to prescribe, instead of doctors or GPs, and therefore cannot be regulated by the CQC.

Not being registered with the CQC is not illegal, but it means if you are buying medicine from an online pharmacy that is non CQC-registered, you cannot be sure it is complying with the same standards of care as your local GP or doctor would.

Here’s a full list of online pharmacies that are regulated by the CQC.

learn more

additional-tickAdditional checks to carry out

As well as checking for the above logos, there are further checks you can carry out on an online pharmacy to make sure it’s safe.

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As with any online purchase, check the online reviews for the pharmacy first to find out if they have a positive reputation with their customers. Ideally, the reviews should be collected on an independent site, like Trustpilot.

Stay vigilant with online pharmacies that have few negative reviews or lots of reviews from people based abroad too.

It’s also worth searching for an online pharmacy on social media to see if it has a significant online presence that’s backed up by comments from real people.

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A reliable online pharmacy will publicly declare who works for them and where the business and the team are based.

Check there is an ‘About Us’ page or similar that shows its pharmacists have a GPhC number and the doctors/GPs have a General Medical Council (GMC) number.

The pharmacy, its doctors and pharmacists must be based in the UK to be monitored by all the UK regulatory bodies mentioned above.

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Any legitimate online pharmacy should clearly list its contact details. The lack of a UK phone number may mean that the online pharmacy is not fully UK-regulated.

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Check whether the online pharmacy’s web address starts with https and has a padlock or has a site security certificate (AKA a SSL certificate registered to the online pharmacy).

Here are some examples:


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If the online pharmacy has these features, you can be sure your browsing and purchasing are private and secure. If it doesn’t, the site should be treated with caution.

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Some medicine sites exist not to safely deliver medicines to patients in need but to turn a profit at the expense of people’s health. This is often evident if they use overly ‘salesy’ language instead of offering help and advice.

With that in mind, before buying medicine online, look at how the website is written. The following examples are potential red flags:

  • Offering prescription medicines with the promise of ‘no prescription’
  • Offering only one type of medicine for each condition
  • No consultation or questionnaire, or having a short one that lacks detail
  • Lack of important information on side effects and other necessary medical information
  • Offering high-risk medicines like Kamagra (unlicensed Viagra), diet pills, opiates, tranquillisers
  • Offering free trials
  • Drugs are typically priced in dollars

fake meds


In August 2016, the government’s MHRA launched a campaign, #FakeMeds, to educate patients on the risks of taking fake medicine. The campaign was supported by the GPhC, who encouraged pharmacists to inform their patients about the risks of buying and using fake medication.

The GPhC also published a paper in June 2018 proposing a number of recommendations to help keep the general public safe when using online pharmacies. These include forcing pharmacies to make public information such as their address and the names of its pharmacists.

Read more MHRA safety tips

Checking medicines for legitimacy

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83% of people do not know how to check if a medicine they purchased online is legitimate. [11]

When you receive your medication you should check the packaging for authenticity. All UK medicine must have:

checking-medicines checking-medicines

1 A batch number and expiry date printed on the box (normally printed on the end) and the strips inside

2 Any seals should be intact. From February 2019, tamper-proof seals will become mandatory for all dispensed medicines

3 A patient information leaflet is inside with all the medical information including contact details for the manufacturer

4 Legally a pharmacy label has to be applied when the medicine is dispensed. If it doesn’t have this it would likely be illegitimate

5 All writing on the packaging should be clear and easy to read. It should contain the manufacturer, the ingredients, and any important medical information

6 All medicines must have the name of the medicine displayed in Braille on the packaging

The independent pharmacy

The Independent Pharmacy is a CQC registered online pharmacy committed to safe online healthcare.

It’s clear that ordering medicines safely online is part of the future of the industry. But it is important that online pharmacies are highly regulated and that the public know how to recognise those regulated sites.

Online and offline health providers must also continue to teach patients how to use online pharmacies safely.

Until the industry is fully regulated to the same standards, we have created this staying safe guide to help educate patients and encourage them to be vigilant about where they buy their medication from online.

Useful resources

When you’re making a decision regarding your health online, it’s important that you only use trusted, reliable sources. These include:


The NHS website is a valuable resource for finding out about conditions and treatments.


The official website of the UK government is a useful hub of information on a range of healthcare issues, as well as legal guidance on what patients should look out for when buying medicine online.


The GMC is a public body that manages all official registered medical practitioners in the United Kingdom.


WebMD is a leading source of reliable healthcare information. Remember though: any information you read should be used to contextualise your condition, not diagnose it.


Charities often offer detailed information on conditions. If you’ve not heard of the charity before, search for it on the government’s charity register first.


Full Fact is a UK charity that partners with sites like Facebook and independently checks facts online.