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PC World

Digital drugstores hit the Net

Web sites can help you get refills, but can't replace your local pharmacy.

by Anne Fischer Lent

(IDG) -- Here comes the next wave of e-commerce: drugs. The pharmacy site is up and running as of last Friday, and its America Online, PlanetRx, and rivals are nearly ready for prime time. is trying to be the electronic version of your neighborhood drugstore -- with prescription and nonprescription drugs, vitamins and herbals, first aid and home care, and personal care items for sale. The prices look very competitive: Targeted specials, such as Halls cherry cough drops at 99 cents a bag, are displayed under each category.

Online drugstores such as are banking on the aging population that needs prescription drugs on a regular basis, rather than serving one-time needs.

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You can't, for example, take your child to the pediatrician for an ear infection and then order the amoxicillin online. First, the prescription has to be one your insurance carrier already knows about, and I found no way of checking to see if my carrier was even listed at the site. (I guess I'd have to order a prescription to find out.) Second, if you need the medicine ASAP, you couldn't wait for it to be shipped via regular mail.

But people who order a lot of repeat prescriptions can now have their orders filled via the Internet at what may be competitive prices. You should comparison shop to confirm this, however. Another caveat: can ship prescriptions to 17 states only, although the company says it will expand coverage quickly.

Up close and impersonal

The site claims to get closer to you than your own personal pharmacist, but that's not realistic. When you click a button to get more information on any given medicine or product, what comes up are research findings and reports, not user-friendly advice.

For example, when I wanted to know more about amoxicillin, I learned that "Researchers in the Netherlands describe isolation of a Helicobacter pylori strain with stable amoxicillin resistance in the November 14th issue of The Lancet." When I dug deeper, I came up with the following: "A novel drug delivery system known as mucoadhesive microspheres allows amoxicillin to more effectively clear Helicobacter pylori infection than a methylcellulose suspension." This isn't exactly the kind of information that I want to hear from a pharmacist.

One helpful service that does provide is to send an e-mail reminder when it's time to refill prescriptions. This can be handy for forgetful customers -- assuming that they remember to check their e-mail.

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