The BMA has condemned one of the UK’s largest online pharmacies after the company offered financial incentives to GPs to insert marketing leaflets into flu jab invitation letters – a potential breach of contract for GPs.
The leaflet from Pharmacy2U, which encouraged patients to use the firm for repeat prescriptions, could be seen as misleading advertising and prescription direction, the BMA’s GP Committee warned.
It is speaking out after hearing that some GP practices received letters from Docmail asking them to include Pharmacy2U leaflets in exchange for a preferable postage rate.
Under GMS contract regulation, GPs are not allowed to direct patients to where they should source their prescriptions.
However Pharmacy2U denied any wrongdoing, saying their actions were in line with pharmacy and marketing regulations.
Pharmacy2U was set up in Leeds in 1999 and claims to be the UK’s largest online pharmacy. It offers free delivery to any address in the UK and says that it manages repeat prescriptions for over 240,000 people across England.
The leaflet in question is headlined: ‘From managing your repeat prescriptions to offering helpful advice, Pharmacy2U will take care of everything for you.’
The BMA issued a strong statement condemning the company’s attempt to get its marketing material into flu vaccination letters, which said: ‘We are concerned that this could constitute direction of prescriptions.’
Chemist shop owners and pharmacists are banned from encouraging doctors to recommend their pharmacy under NHS rules, the statement added.
‘In this case, Docmail and Pharmacy2U appear to have offered an inducement for GP practices to advertise Pharmacy2U services. A patient could be led to believe that their GP was recommending Pharmacy2U.’
So far the BMA has not heard of any GPs who have sent the Pharmacy2U leaflets out but it has been contacted by GPs who ‘had expressed concerns’.
A BMA spokesperson said that if any GPs have sent out the leaflets it ‘could constitute a breach of pharmacy regulations’.
He advised anyone who had done so to get in touch with their LMC urgently.
Although the BMA believes there is ‘high risk’ of breaching GMS regulations prohibiting directions of prescriptions it is calling for greater regulatory clarity. In particular, the Pharmaceutical and Local Pharmaceutical Services Regulations bill should be beefed up to make specific reference to misleading patients, it said.
‘We are in discussions with NHS England. We have voiced our concerns and hope they are acted upon,’ the BMA spokesperson said.
Pharmacy2U denied that they were doing anything wrong.
A spokesperson said: ‘We are aware of the BMA statement and are in ongoing discussions with them as we do not believe our communications constitute direction of prescriptions. Our leaflets are shared and approved by NHS England and follow the best practice guidelines of the Direct Marketing Association.’
All of the firm’s literature, including the leaflet in question, state that Pharmacy2U ‘is not recommended or approved by an individual’s doctor,’ the spokesperson added.
The company has run into trouble with regulators before. In October 2015 the BBC reported that it was fined £130,000 for selling patients’ personal data to marketing companies, including one that had been warned over misleading advertising and another facing an investigation into a lottery it ran. The information commissioner said Pharmacy2U had made ‘a serious error of judgement’ in selling the data.
In January 2016 GPs were told to re-issue prescriptions to patients left without medicines from Pharmacy2U after the company’s distribution process failed. The delay caused outrage on social media for patients affected over the Christmas holidays.