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Is it legal to get a prescription online?

Everything you need to know about seeking medical treatment online.

Written by
Sarah Stivens
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
April 23, 2024
6
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Is it legal to get a prescription online?
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You've been held back at work on a Friday afternoon — before you know it, the pharmacy is shut. Or you manage to make it on time, but your medication is out of stock and needs to be ordered. Sound familiar?

Brick-and-mortar pharmacies do incredible work and are vital parts of our community. But as our lives become busier than a postie at Christmas and increasingly online, we can't always make it into the store to pick up our meds.

So, what's the deal with online prescriptions? Are they legit? Will you accidentally fall down an illegal rabbit hole? Let's dive in.

Why do I need a prescription for some medicines?

While some medicines are available over the counter at your local pharmacy or supermarket, many medications need a prescription from a doctor (or other approved healthcare provider) [1].

There are a number of reasons certain medicines might need to be prescribed by a healthcare professional, including:

  • If it's classed as a 'controlled medicine' and has the potential to be addictive or misused
  • If it's a medication that needs to be injected/taken in ways other than orally
  • If the medicine has potentially serious side effects [1]

Keeping these restricted medicines prescription only means a doctor can assess you properly before prescribing them to you and make sure you're getting the right treatment.

They can also check in regularly to make sure the medicine is working as it should [1]. For example, if you have a mental health condition and are starting antidepressants for the first time, you should have regular checkups with your prescriber to discuss how it's going.

What's the deal with getting a prescription?

Traditionally, we've lived in the land of the paper prescription. They're usually either printed out on that special greenish paper (in Australia) or handwritten by your health practitioner.

To get a prescription, you need to organise an appointment with your GP or healthcare provider first — then discuss what's going on for you.

Only registered health practitioners can write you a prescription. This usually includes doctors, psychiatrists, dentists, optometrists, nurse practitioners, and midwife practitioners, but this may vary depending on what state you live in.

To get your paper prescription dispensed, you'll usually have to visit your pharmacy and show them your script in person. Sometimes, you might have to show them your Medicare card, too.

Other places might be able to dispense your medication — like if you're staying in hospital, or your dentist decides you need something straight away. Again, this will depend on what part of Australia you live in [1].

Plus, when you run out of the prescription, you'll need to head back to your healthcare professional to get a repeat prescription if you need to continue taking the medication.

What's an electronic prescription?

More recently, the Australian government and healthcare providers have rolled out electronic prescriptions or 'e-scripts'. This was prompted by the Australian Digital Health Agency and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) so that medications can be more accessible to those who need them [2].

An e-script is basically a digital version of your paper prescription — it's sent by your prescriber to your phone via SMS, or to your email. It shows up as a unique barcode, digital image, or QR code that you can show the pharmacist (or send to them if they offer delivery) [2].

They're great for saving time and can make managing prescriptions less overwhelming. No more frantic rummaging in the centre console or bedside drawers [3]. Electronic prescribing can also help people who have trouble getting to face-to-face appointments.

E-scripts can only be provided with a patient's consent — if you'd prefer to stick with paper prescriptions, you can let your healthcare provider know at any time.

How do I get a prescription online in Australia?

So, are there other options aside from scheduling an in-person GP appointment and making the trip to the pharmacy after? We've given you heaps of info so far, so let's cut to the chase— Yes!

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, lots of health organisations have been expanding their telehealth services.

This means if you can't always make it into the doctor's office, live in a rural/remote area, or simply want to use a telehealth service because it's convenient, you can chat with a health professional online or via phone [4].

To get a prescription online, you'll need to book a telehealth appointment with your GP or healthcare service. They'll chat with you about what you need help with and can send you a prescription once the consult's finished (usually an e-script) [4].

Depending on what your clinic offers and/or the setup you have at home, your telehealth appointment might take place via webcam over the internet (think Zoom, Teams, etc.) or by phone call. Telehealth consultations can also be text-based for repeat consultations.

The best thing about telehealth is the convenience — you can make the appointment for whenever suits you, and don't even have to leave the house. Wear your pyjamas if you like, we won't tell.

And if we're being realistic: telehealth is a great way to stay away from crowded clinics — especially if you're not feeling well, or have a vulnerable immune system [4].

Also, cost-effective! No need to take hours off work to make it to your face-to-face appointment. So once the telehealth consultation is over, what happens next?

How can I order my medication online?

There are a few ways to get your medication after you've had an online/telehealth consult. You might: take your script to your preferred pharmacy, send it electronically to your chemist so they can organise home delivery (if they offer this), or order it online from a web-based pharmacy or health service [5].

And, the beauty of an online pharmacy or provider is that opening hours aren't a thing!

If you decide to order your medicines from an online pharmacy or health website, there are a few things you should research first:

  • Is the company based in Australia? Does their website list a physical address located in Australia and a working phone number (non-international)?
  • Is the company legitimate? Can you see more information in the About Us section of their website? Is there an ABN listed? Do they have positive customer reviews? [6].
  • What are their delivery policies? Will the medication reach you in time/when you need it?

While it's not outright illegal to purchase medications online in Australia, you do need to be careful. It's best to avoid ordering anything from overseas — because it is illegal to import some medicines and medical devices into Australia [6].

Even if this happens by accident, your package could be seized by customs, you could be fined, or even prosecuted. No one wants an Orange Is The New Black situation, so best to stay on accredited sites based in Australia. Don't be afraid to call their phone number and ask questions if you're in doubt [5].

Lastly, you don't want to risk your health by ending up with fake or expired medicines, or ones that haven't been tested properly.

The good thing about ordering from legitimate Australian businesses is that all medicines in Australia have to be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). The TGA has regulations in place to make sure medications available for sale in Australia meet safety and quality standards [6]. Phew!

So, once you've done your research and settled on a provider, you can send through or upload your script (or they might do it for you) and have your prescription delivered.

Some services might even offer to send out your prescription repeats without needing another telehealth appointment — this will vary depending on your health history, what the medication is being used for, and what the guidelines are for prescribers [7].

And remember, if in doubt about anything medication-related, always chat with your GP or trusted health professional before ordering medications online.

Electronic prescriptions, telehealth services, and online medication providers are the way of the future — we hope they bring a little more convenience and accessibility into your life when you need it. Being safe and choosing your providers wisely is also super important.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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