When Healthcare Goes Online, What’s the Risk?

April 3, 2018

As consumers increasingly look to e-commerce and digital solutions for their health-care needs, the counterfeiting problems seen in other categories naturally raises the question—could they be risking their health? Today, most e-commerce sellers limit themselves to supplements or the occasional over-the-counter medicine, which may seem fairly benign. But that’s not always the reality, says Dr. Minna Kim, a licensed naturopathic physician based in Stamford, Connecticut who regularly uses supplements to help treat her patients.

“Many of the patients I see have been through the ringer with traditional medicine and are looking for something else. They are often quite sick or have mysterious symptoms. The quality of supplements can make a big difference,” says Kim. She goes on to explain that this is why naturopathic practitioners typically use professional supplement lines, which the brands only authorize to certain sellers.

When buying online, it can be hard to know whether the seller is authorized—or even to guarantee what they are selling is the genuine product. Kim points to a recent experience one of her own patients had. The patient had purchased a probiotic from Kim’s office, an authorized seller. When the patient needed a refill, she turned to the convenience of Amazon. The product that was delivered looked exactly the same, but it contained an additional ingredient: milk—one of the exact foods Dr. Kim had told the patient to avoid.

“There are ingredients that can be problematic when I’m trying to heal a patient,” explains Kim. “At the time I wondered if the supplement brand had two different lines—a professional version versus a consumer version—but now I wonder if the product my patient received was actually counterfeit.”

Even for consumers who are looking to supplements for general wellness, unknown or inferior ingredients spell trouble. “Some supplements are dangerous when you try to self-diagnose and self-prescribe…. Others can simply be a waste of money because they’re made in a form that your body can’t use,” explains Kim.

So how can consumers reduce their risk? “As much as I would love everyone to go to a professional because I don’t want them to waste their money, people are going to go out and buy their own. So, I want to make sure what they buy is worth it. Put in a little research and go to [reputable sites] like Vitacost or Pure Formulas who are authorized to sell these supplements,” Kim recommends.

When it comes to buying over-the-counter medications online, Dianne Galang, Director of Client Services – Health, Beauty and Baby for Daymon, agrees that it’s critical for consumers to do their research. “With rising healthcare costs, it can be easy to get sucked into cheaper alternatives,” she admits. “To protect themselves, one thing consumers can do is to ensure they are buying from a first-party seller versus a third-party seller.”

First-party sellers sell directly to the online retailer, who is then more likely to vet the product for legitimacy, says Galang. On sites like Amazon, consumers can spot first-party seller goods by looking for items that are sold and shipped by Amazon, versus sold and/or shipped by another retailer or brand. “Also, private brands are a good trusted alternative because the retailer would need to do the vetting of the quality/product as their name is on the outside of the package,” she adds.

“In any category, but especially in healthcare, it is important to do research and not purchase off impulse low retail prices. If it is a trusted site, with a trusted seller, with content which compares the product to the national brand equivalent, the chances of it being counterfeit are less likely,” Galang concludes.