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Caught in the web

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IN A debate on ‘Vets and the Big Society’ at the BVA Congress last month, Richard Dixon discussed the power of the internet and, in particular, social media in determining the reputation of veterinary practices and the profession as a whole, arguing that, unless the profession acted quickly to manage its reputation online, others, most notably people who use veterinary services, would soon be managing it instead (see pp 456–457 of this issue). A separate debate organised by the Veterinary Marketing Association earlier this month considered another area where the internet is making an impact on veterinary businesses: the online sale and supply of medicines. The debate took the form of a panel discussion, with the panel including vets who ran internet pharmacies and vets who did not, a representative of the animal medicines industry and a representative of the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD). It considered the advantages and disadvantages of people being able to obtain veterinary medicines online and posed the question, ‘Internet pharmacies – opportunity or threat?’.

Discussing possible disadvantages, Bob Moore, who had been in farm animal practice for more than 40 years, expressed concern about the security of prescriptions, and the potential supply of products not authorised in the UK from internet pharmacies overseas. He also had concerns about ensuring that buyers were competent to use the product, and whether suspected adverse reactions would be reported if something went wrong. Inappropriate use of farm animal medicines could have consequences for the food chain, and, with small practices facing competition from larger organisations, he was also concerned about the animal health and welfare implications of a loss of personal contact between vets and farmer clients.

Arguing that internet pharmacies represented an opportunity, and that the vet's role as custodian of animal health and welfare should not be undermined by technology, Matthew Dobbs, of Westpoint Veterinary Group, suggested that they were just one of the tools that could be used by vets to help improve the health and welfare of animals. He believed that, with the changes taking place in the livestock sector, practices would increasingly have to compete on the level of service and advice that they offered, rather than relying on medicines sales. Establishing an online pharmacy as a separate business had allowed vets in his practice to concentrate on being vets rather than thinking about what medicines to prescribe, and the practice to make money by developing services rather than selling medicines.

For the traditional small animal practitioner, internet pharmacies undoubtedly posed a threat, according to Jamie Crittall, of Beech House Veterinary Centre in Surrey, who believed that practices like his own had to compete by demonstrating that, in offering a ‘one-stop shop’ and a more personal service, they offered a better option for clients and their animals. Discussing the opportunities provided by online pharmacies, Iain Booth, a vet who set up the online pharmacy and pet product retailer VetUK, noted that it was not just medicines that were bought online; other pet products accounted for much of his business.

Alison Glennon, of the National Office of Animal Health, which represents the animal medicines industry, argued that, if one accepted that medicines were beneficial, then internet pharmacies had to be seen as an opportunity, as they would increase visibility and availability. More people were obtaining wormers via the internet which, she suggested, could be helpful in terms of disease prevention. Lesley Johnson, of the VMD, also felt that there could be advantages in making medicines more available – but only if suppliers were well regulated and managed. Without such regulation, internet pharmacies posed a threat, not least because of concerns about the quality of products and the risk of products being used inappropriately. Regulating websites is not without its challenges, but she gave details of a logo-based accreditation scheme which is being developed by the VMD and which it hopes will be up and running at the end of next year.

Issues raised in discussion included the difficulties of regulating websites, with the point being made that, although people were used to shopping online, buying drugs was not the same as general shopping. As the debate's chairman, Sandy Trees, remarked, ‘If someone buys a fake handbag, they’ve been swindled. If they buy a fake medicine, they could die.' With regard to wormers, the point was made that not all wormers are the same and that people need to be advised accordingly. Regarding increased availability, it was noted that the emphasis should be on using drugs responsibly, not just on selling more.

Whether viewed as an opportunity or threat, a clear message from the debate was that internet pharmacies – like the social media discussed by Dr Dixon at the BVA Congress – are here to stay and that the internet will continue to affect the way practice develops in the future.

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