A new algorithm may be able to detect illicit online pharmacies that could be providing customers with substandard medications, among other issues, according to a new study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Consumers are expected to spend more than $100 billion at online pharmacies in the coming years, according to the study; however, without proper quality controls, illicit online pharmacies can take advantage of vulnerable patients. These pharmacies provide not only a commercial threat, but often sell sub-standard and counterfeit drugs, according to the study. Some may even provide dangerous and addictive drugs, such as opioids, without a prescription, the researchers noted. 

A team from the Pennsylvania State University designed a computer model to help weed out bad pharmacies by looking at a few key attributes. Researchers determined that identifying the relationship between the pharmacy and other sites was crucial in determining whether the pharmacy was legitimate or not. 

There are anywhere between 32,000 to 35,000 online pharmacies, up to 75% of which are illegitimate, according to the study. The scale of the issue isn’t the only problem, because these pharmacies are also highly dynamic. Approximately 20 of these pharmacies come and go daily, the researchers said. 

Most consumers lack the awareness of the prevalence and danger of these illicit sites. The researchers found that if a pharmacy is mainly reached through referral websites that mostly link to or refer to illicit pharmacies, that pharmacy is most likely illegitimate. 

“There are several problems with illicit online pharmacies…One is they might put bad content into a pill, and the other problem is they might reduce the content of a medicine, so, for example, instead of taking 200 milligrams of a medication, the customers are only taking 100 milligrams—and they probably never realize it,” Soundar Kumara, PhD, Allen E. Pearce and Allen M. Pearce professor of Industrial Engineering, said in a press release. 

The algorithm can potentially be used by government agencies, policy makers, and patient advocacy groups to help identify, monitor, and weed out illicit online pharmacies. It can also be used to help educate and inform consumers, the study authors concluded. 

Reference:
Algorithm aims to alert consumers before they use illicit online pharmacies (Press release) Centre County, PA, August 28, 2020, ScienceDaily, Accessed September 1, 2020