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Clampdown on online pharmacies to stop patients getting painkillers

Health chiefs announce crackdown on online pharmacies to stop patients from easily buying dangerously strong painkillers without a consultation

  • A surge of online pharmacies have made prescription drugs more accessible
  • Rules will safeguard patients by forcing sites to be more accountable 
  • Debbie Headspeath, 41, was found dead in her Ipswich home in July 2017 
  • Family believe cause of death was an accidental overdose of opioid painkillers

Health chiefs are to begin clamping down on online pharmacies to stop patients from easily buying dangerous drugs.

New rules will protect people from the dangers of addictive medications such as strong painkillers without having a consultation. 

The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPC) has issued the guidance for providers meaning the way they operate will need to change.

The move comes after a surge in legal sites being used by people who can use a prescription from a doctor outside the UK – behind their GPs back.

Health chiefs are clamping down on online pharmacies to stop patients from easily buying inappropriate drugs. Pictured, Debbie Headspeath, 41, who died in 2017 after years of addiction to painkillers that she had bought thousands of online 

Loopholes mean patients can access thousands of pills using multiple sites that are under no obligation to implement safety measures. 

One case that has been highlighted is that of Debbie Headspeath, a 41-year-old who died in 2017 after years of addiction to painkillers.

As well as using those prescribed by her GP, an investigation found that in the nine months before her death she had taken some 3,700 codeine painkiller tablets bought from 21 internet pharmacies.

Measures introduced by the GPC include that patients aren’t able to get medication unless they have an online consultation with a healthcare professional.

If a patient needs a medication that could be abused, or there is a risk of addiction, the prescriber needs to contact their GP in advance.


Debbie Headspeath, 41, from Ipswich, was a regular customer to legal online pharmacies in the UK.

The cause of death, her family believe, was an accidental overdose of opioid painkillers. An inquest into Debbie’s death is scheduled for May.

Ms Headspeath had just started a new job with war veterans and had left one morning in July 2017 for work – but never arrived.

Her partner of 20 years, Mike, 54, a Post Office worker from Ipswich, found her lying dead at their home when he received a call from her work that morning. 

Ms Headspeath had been prescribed the opiate-based painkiller dihydrocodeine by her family doctor in 2008 after developing back pain.

She developed a dependency on the drug which initially she tried to deal with on her own with her family doctor — Mike says the couple only ever had one conversation about it, one night about four years before she died.

She was able to buy more painkillers online, prescribed by doctors and dispensed by UK pharmacies, without her GP or partner’s knowledge.

Kevin Duggan, Ms Headspeath’s brother, told the BBC: ‘There’s no justification for what they do, which is exploiting people with an addiction. I would like to invite the companies to try and justify their actions to my mum.

‘To look my mum in the eyes and explain why they allowed this to happen.’ 

Strategies are also to be put in place so the sites can identify requests for medicines that are inappropriate or repeatedly being ordered to the same address.

Duncan Rudkin, chief executive of the GPC said: ‘We support pharmacy services being provided in innovative ways, including online, as long as the services are safe and effective for people. 

‘But providing pharmacy services online carries particular risks which need to be successfully managed.

‘People can be put at serious risk if they are able to obtain medicines that are not appropriate for them. 

‘We are now putting in place this updated guidance with further safeguards to protect people.’ 

Further safeguards will be put in place before supplying a range of medicines including antibiotics, opiates, sedatives and laxatives. 

Those that need ongoing management will have tighter checks, including those to treat diabetes, asthma and mental health conditions.  

Research by YouGov, commissioned by GPC, found that 25 per cent of people say they are likely to use online pharmacies in the future.

The number of sites selling medicine legally to patients has almost doubled since 2015, from 380 to 713, as patients seek prescriptions their GPs are unlikely to give. 

Opium-based painkillers such as codeine and tramadol can be ‘life-transforming’ for short-term pain, say experts.   

Being highly addictive drugs, there have been demands for better guidance about GPs prescribing of it – but that hasn’t covered the readily available drugs online. 

Most other European countries have prevented their citizens being prescribed drugs by a remote online doctor from another country in the EU.  

A BBC Panorama investigation exposed the risks of websites using doctors from companies based outside England.

The Care Quality Commission said these websites could be ‘dangerous’. 

I bought £1K of Opioids from UK websites

Sophie Courtney, 28, from Ilfracombe in Devon and mother to Willow, aged seven, and Oscar, four, is recovering after nine months as a prescription painkiller addict.

Talented and intelligent, she is reading psychology at Plymouth University. Yet until last summer she was taking an average of 60 opioid tablets a day. They came largely via the internet and she once spent £6,000 on four consignments of 1,000 tramadol pills sent in quick succession from a Canadian website. ‘Sometimes it was 40 a day, sometimes it was 80. It depended how I felt,’ she says.

Her life has been beset by trauma. At 19 she lost her first child, Harley, at five days old, to a botched hospital resuscitation attempt. She has spent most of the decade since on antidepressants, moving from job to job. Three years ago she received £100,000 from the NHS in compensation for the loss of her son. Shortly after that, she was working out in the gym when she ruptured her calf muscle.

‘It was agony and I was prescribed codeine, which didn’t do anything. Then I was prescribed tramadol,’ she says.

‘I never drank or smoked in the past but once I got this injury and started taking these tablets, it became a pure addiction within days. By the end of the first week I was taking double what was prescribed because I needed many more to get any effect from them.’

As the body rapidly becomes used to opioids, it needs larger and larger doses to have any effect.

‘Within a month I was taking 30 a day and within two months I was taking 60,’ Sophie says. ‘It got to the point where I couldn’t get enough from the doctor and was getting my family and friends to get prescriptions for me. My mum could get tramadol because she had arthritis and she would give me a few.

‘It wasn’t really about the pain — in between doses I felt so desperate I needed the next one. I was lying and manipulating people all the time to get them. I found I could function if I had ten tramadol and ten dihydrocodeine a day, which were prescribed by the GP — and the extra off the internet.

‘I used five websites in the UK to get codeine, spending at least £1,000 for just over two weeks’ supply.

‘I just scanned the document describing my calf muscle injury and emailed it to different online pharmacies. Within 12 hours a doctor would OK it and they would send out the drugs.

‘At one stage I went to the GP and told him I had just spent £6,000 on them. He said he would push for me to be referred to the drug treatment service. I saw them three times and they wanted to put me on a reducing programme of drug use. I freaked out at the idea of reducing my intake, so it didn’t happen.’

By then Sophie has just £4,000 left of her £100,000 payout — so last year, her sister booked her into a 28-day rehab programme at a specialist centre.

‘It cost £7,000. Oscar’s dad loaned me the money, I’m paying him back. I was told when I got there I wasn’t addicted, so I wouldn’t be given a drug substitute: I was going cold turkey.

‘It was hell. I have never experienced pain, projectile sickness and diarrhoea like that. I was given one codeine every four days.

‘After 13 days I went home, trembling with the worst anxiety. Despite that, the cold turkey withdrawal worked. Luckily I have a supportive family — my mum, my two sisters and my son’s dad, who is now my best friend.

‘I would say to anyone, don’t take tramadol. It won’t take away the pain.’


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