If you’re considering your options for healthcare providers, you might have heard of online doctors and online pharmacies. Some people may use the terms interchangeably, but there are differences between pharmacies and online doctors. If you’re not sure which is best for you, keep reading to learn more about what each type of healthcare provider can help you with.
What is an online doctor?
An online doctor provides a service similar to that of your GP or doctor’s surgery, except online. They provide medical consultations that might be an online form, via telephone or through a video call, but they don’t meet patients face to face. This means they can’t provide a physical examination and are subject to the limitations of video conferencing software. While they may be able to suggest a diagnosis based on a list of your symptoms, you may prefer to visit a doctor who can examine you in person. It’s also worth considering that you may have to pay for services you could get free at your GP’s surgery. For example, contraception prescriptions aren’t free if you use an online doctor.
What can an online doctor prescribe?
If you choose an online doctor’s appointment rather than a face to face one, your healthcare provider will still be able to prescribe you medications to help your condition. Like in a regular appointment, your doctor will ask questions about your health, and you can ask them about anything that is concerning you. If you’ve been tracking your symptoms, tell your doctor about their frequency, severity, or any patterns you might have noticed, as this can aid diagnosis.
During the appointment, there are some things your doctor should do to ensure they are upholding the correct standards of care. In most cases (except those involving sexual health) your doctor should:
- Check your identity
- Request a detailed medical history from you
- Ask your permission to share information about the consultation with your GP
- Thoroughly inform you of any risks or treatment options associated with your condition
If you are consulting an online doctor about a sexual health issue, you don’t need to confirm your identity or share information with your GP. However, you can if you wish to. In all consultations, regardless of the type of health issue being discussed, doctors can refuse to prescribe you medication if they feel they do not have enough information to do so or that it may be unsafe or harmful. They may also refer you to a suitable provider if they think a face-to-face consultation is needed and they can’t provide one.
What is the difference between a pharmacy and an online doctor?
One of the main differences between an online doctor and a pharmacy is the institution’s ability to prescribe medications. In general, a pharmacist cannot prescribe medications unless:
- They are registered as an independent prescriber
- They are working as part of a Patient Group Direction - a system where non-prescribing healthcare professionals can supply or administer medications in certain circumstances
If you are unsure whether or not you can get a prescription from your local pharmacy, it’s best to speak to the pharmacist. They will be able to answer your questions and, if necessary, refer you to someone who can help you.
It’s worth noting that pharmacists (both at online pharmacies and in-store) can give you non-prescription medications, also known as over the counter (OTC) medicines. These might include decongestants, paracetamol tablets and emergency contraception. As for regular contraception, you can buy condoms and OTC oral contraceptives such as the Lovima® mini pill from a pharmacy. Very few oral contraceptives are available over the counter. Those that are have been strictly regulated to ensure that pharmacists can safely supply them without needing a prescription.
You can get your prescription fulfilled at any UK pharmacy. It doesn't matter whether the prescription was issued by your GP or an online doctor, so long as it was done by a capable, registered prescriber. Some pharmacies offer a home delivery service so you don’t have to visit the store in person. Check with your local pharmacy to see if this applies to your area. Some pharmacies charge for this service.
Another way pharmacies differ from online doctors is that they usually offer services tailored to in person visits. For example, you can take any old or unwanted medications to your local pharmacy so that they can be disposed of. Taking any medications after the expiry date can be dangerous. This includes contraceptives or other OTC medicines.
If you go to take your prescription medications and realise your remaining supply has expired, you may also be able to get an emergency supply from your pharmacy in certain circumstances. You may have to pay for the medication if you usually pay for prescriptions, and whether or not you are given an emergency supply is up to the pharmacist. Pharmacists can refuse to supply you with medications if they believe it might be harmful to you.
Additionally, pharmacists can advise you on minor illnesses, medication queries and healthy living on a walk-in basis. Online doctors can offer this advice too, but you’ll typically have to book an appointment to get it. Many pharmacies also provide support with self care activities such as weight loss, exercising and quitting smoking. They can also help you to understand the importance of self care to not only your mental health but your physical health, too. If a pharmacy cannot help you, they will be able to refer you to someone who can - which could be an online doctor if you can’t get a regular appointment with your GP.
Note: Lovima is an 'over the counter medicine' and does not require a prescription.