Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Prescription Drugs Online

Part 2. The prescription drug marketplace

Most Americans do not fully trust the online prescription drug marketplace.

Sixty-two percent of Americans think purchasing prescription drugs online is less safe than purchasing them at a local pharmacy. Twenty percent of Americans think such online purchases are as safe as local purchases. Eighteen percent of Americans responded that they did not know or that it depends on the situation.

Sixty-eight percent of Americans agree with the following statement: “Some argue that allowing people to purchase prescription drugs online makes it too easy to obtain drugs illegally, without a prescription.” Seventy-one percent of Americans agree with a second statement: “Others argue that people should not be allowed to purchase prescription drugs online because not all pharmacies are licensed in the United States, and there’s no way to guarantee the safety of drugs that come from other countries.”

A handful of states encourage their residents to purchase lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, despite opposition from the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA.

“Show me the dead Canadians.” – Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) in response to the federal government’s safety concerns about the importation of drugs from Canada

Few health plans require mail order or online purchasing.

Of the 86% of Americans who are covered by a health plan, 5% report that they are required to order certain prescription drugs by mail or online. Eighty-nine percent of insured Americans are allowed to order all of their prescription drugs at a local pharmacy, if they wish.  Six percent of insured Americans do not know if there is such a requirement associated with their health plan.

IMS Health estimates that 13.8% of prescriptions are fulfilled by mail. Most are filled by chain drugstores (36.2%), independent drug stores (14.4%), or non-federal hospitals (10.5%).7

A fraction of Americans has ever bought prescription drugs online.

According to our survey, just 4% of Americans have ever purchased prescription drugs on the internet.  Three percent of Americans placed the order themselves and 1% had someone else do it. Not surprisingly, internet users are more likely to have bought prescription drugs online but a small number of non-internet users have done so. Americans living in higher-income households ($50,000+ annually) are more likely than those living in lower-income households to have done so. Internet users with six or more years of online experience are also more likely to be “Rx purchasers.” 

Rx purchasers – Americans who answer yes to the following question: “Have you ever purchased prescription drugs on the internet, whether you placed the order yourself or someone else did it for you?”

Americans who perceive buying drugs online as safe are more likely to have actually made a purchase. Americans who are on prescription medication, or live with someone who is, are more likely to have bought prescription drugs online. Americans who have gone on the internet to look for information about prescription drugs are more likely to have made such a purchase online. 

Convenience is the top reason for online prescription-drug purchasing.

The small number of Americans who have ordered prescription drugs online are likely to cite convenience, time savings, and cost savings as the main reasons why they decided to take the leap. Privacy is the least likely factor of the four offered in the survey.

The typical online purchase includes a doctor’s prescription and U.S.-based pharmacy. Three in four online drug purchases are for a chronic medical condition.

When asked about the last time they purchased prescription drugs online, vast majority of Rx purchasers say the site required a prescription and near majority of Rx purchasers say they had a prescription from their doctor. The vast majority of Rx purchasers visited a site that was based in the United States; a few visited a site based in another country and a few do not know where the site is based.

Three in four online drug purchases are for a chronic medical condition.

Three-quarters of Rx purchasers say the last time they purchased prescription drugs online, they bought a drug for a chronic medical condition such as high blood pressure or arthritis. One quarter of Rx purchasers say their last purchase at an online pharmacy was for some other purpose, such as weight loss or sexual performance.

Most are satisfied customers, few report bad experiences.

Most Rx purchasers were satisfied with their last contact with an online pharmacy and plan to order prescription drugs online in the future. The quality of the drugs purchased online garnered the most positive feedback – the vast majority of Rx purchasers said they were “very satisfied” with the quality. A large majority of Rx purchasers were “very satisfied” with the customer service they received and about half were “very satisfied” with the price they paid.

Nine in ten Rx purchasers plan to go online to fill a prescription in the future. However, a small group of Rx purchasers reported a bad experience ordering prescription drugs online. Most had to do with shipping problems – packages lost in the mail or routed to the wrong address. 

  1. IMS Health, “U.S. Purchase Activity by Channel, June 2004.” Available at:

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