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tv   Online Doctors Uncovered - Panorama  BBC News  August 10, 2018 3:30am-4:01am BST

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now on bbc news, panorama. tonight, the online doctor sites selling prescription only drugs. for me this is a form of legal drug dealing. these are drugs that are potentially dangerous. and the celebrity tv doctor who promotes one of them. if you need a stronger pain medication, online doctor service at uk meds may be able to help you. we go undercover to meet a doctor struck off for cavalier prescribing who's still cashing in online. go in, click, filla form in, doctor comes and reviews the form, accepts, declines, generates a prescription, that's the big money, okay? we hearfrom the mother of a patient who died after buying prescription drugs online. i found sean the day he died and i am still in shock. and from the regulator calling for a change in the law. there are loopholes that you have
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identified that need closing, so legislation does need to change. as more of us turn to the internet to solve our health needs, we ask, are online doctor sites putting lives at risk? my name's dr faye kirkland. i'm a gp and a journalist. for the past three years i've been investigating online doctor sites selling prescription only drugs. so are you all happy to have a look at the sites and tell me what you think and then see how easy it is to buy medication online? yeah. with the help of some volunteers
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i want to see if they can get drugs their own gps would be highly unlikely to prescribe to them. this is nicki. she's ordering co—codamol, an opiate based painkiller, from a website called rxexpress. so we have a look at the co—codamol and is that something you have taken in the past? yes, definitely. and this is eleanor. she's ordering 250 high dose xenical, prescription slimming pills, from another website called express doctor. it's a lot to come all at once and if, i mean, i've nevertaken them before you wouldn't know the effect. the problem is these drugs could prove fatal for both women. nicki used to be addicted to painkillers. eleanor was treated for anorexia when she was a teenager. they don't declare these details when they fill in online questionnaires about their medical histories. nicki said she would contact her gp. eleanor wasn't asked
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about her gp at all. they'll send you an email with the next step so just go into your email. both women had to pay for the drugs via a company in romania before the online doctor had even checked their questionnaires. nicki is prescribed 200 tablets of the strongest co—codamol. eleanor is prescribed three months worth of slimming pills. it's just crazy. i mean even the process of this. have you an eating disorder? no. on with it then. nicki's co—codamol cost 149 euros including delivery. eleanor was charged 315 euros. i was truly shocked, i'm horrified to see some of those sites that you showed me to see that you click on the drug first, and then you go through the consultation, and just how easy it was to circumvent the process. this isn't right, it's not safe, it has to be sorted. neither of the sites that nicki
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and eleanor bought drugs from are cqc registered. and according to the regulator it's sites like these that are giving online medicine a bad name. the online doctor sites are potentially very useful going forward because they will help people who live distant from their gp and allow access to improve. some people find it difficult but they have to be very, very careful. if you are taking opiates you should see your own gp and have a consultation with your own gp. i think you should look for the cqc logo because some of these websites if they are not regulated by the cqc can be very, very dangerous. so who prescribed painkillers to a former addict and slimming pills to a recovered anorexic? doctors, who i've discovered, are contracted by a romanian company called eurorx. it's part—owned by this
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man, julian eden. back in 2000, he was the pioneer of online prescribing after setting up the uk's first online doctor service, e—med. it's made millions. there are many cases where you don't physically need to see a doctor to get a problem sorted out and perhaps if we at e—med can sort out some of those cases, there might be more time for the other doctors to see the cases that do need to be seen. nine years later, julian eden was struck off after prescribing through e—med to a 16 year old boy and a woman who became addicted to prescription drugs. i think in the words of the tribunal, he was a businessman first and a clinician second. he put the interests of his business first and thought little of the interests of his patients. they found him irresponsible. they found he was a less than credible witness and his first thought was for business. it wasn't for his patients. julian eden can no longer
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prescribe drugs himself, but doctors contracted by the romanian company eurorx, that he owns with his wife, can. we wanted to meet him, so one of our undercovers, posing as an investor, gives him a call. hi, hello, laurence speaking. hi, laurence, it's jules. hello, eden. what are you looking to do? well i'm looking for investment opportunities in the online doctors service area? laurence tells him she's keen to get his advice and he suggests they meet. hey there. hello. nice to meet you. laurence, nice to meet you. he tells her he's a busy man. i haven't got a huge amount of time, ?cause i'm flying tomorrow, going to a big meeting in romania. oh, okay, business then. yeah, all the heads ? all the big players in european online medication are all meeting, we're having a secret meeting in romania, so yeah.
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laurence says she's thinking of setting up her own doctor site. he says she has options, including this one. you've got your online buy it here website, go in, click, fill a form in, doctor comes and reviews the form, accepts, declines, generates a prescription, that's the big money, okay? that one works wonders, you know, that's where you get, you know, a return and you get your profit. 0ur undercover then asks about the doctors who do consultations and prescriptions for online sites. so what about the drugs his doctors have prescribed to our volunteers?
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former anorexic eleanor gets the slimming pills she ordered. i've got so many diet pills here and if i'd still been in the depths of my illness it would have been so dangerous for me, literally a massive, massive box of them, took less than four days to come, straight to my door. ijust had to sign for them, no questions asked. no safeguarding whatsoever, it's crazy. and former addict nicki gets the opiate—based painkillers. they've just arrived via dhl, which needed to be signed for. having had an addiction to prescription medication, i'm still shocked to see this is how easy it can be to get medication online, and this is really fuelling the addiction to prescription medication. it's potentially fatal, that's the reality of it.
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people who've been weaned off medication, their tolerance will have changed if they suddenly get hold of large quantities of opiates again and take them in the ways they used to take them. that will lead to overdose and potentially death. we collect the drugs immediately from nicki and eleanor and have them analysed at king's college london. scientists confirmed the drugs are genuine. back with our struck off doctor. he tells us how the online doctor business is policed. 0nline doctor sites in england are regulated by the care quality
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commission. julian eden's own site e—med has been inspected five times. he tells our undercover he thinks the regulators are idiots. well, it is shocking, isn't it? i mean whether he's a doctor or not, struck off or not. he's showing great contempt for the patients that company is meant to be serving. i think it is diabolical. the cqc now only allows e—med to prescribe one medication and 18 months ago, most english websites stopped selling high risk drugs like tranquilisers and pain killers because of cqc safety concerns. but that hasn't stopped julian eden. and that's where his romanian company comes in.
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it offers doctors for hire. any website using doctors contracted by a company based outside england can't be regulated by the cqc. it's a gaping loophole. we are making sure that patients are safe and getting effective care when the company is based in england. the law does not allow us to oversee, have any oversight over companies outside england and that is a real problem. in the past three years there have been at least four investigations
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into the deaths of people who bought prescription drugs from online doctor sites. i'm on my way to meet a woman whose son died. sean was a gentle giant. he was very, very fond of his family. always put others before himself. he was prescribed tranquilisers by his gp following the deaths of his brother and father. unfortunately my dear husband died and sean missed him terribly. he was prescribed diazepam for a short time to alleviate,
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i suppose, the shock. but sean quickly became dependent on the drugs. when his gp and family tried to wean him off them, he looked elsewhere. sean had found a site where he could get diazepam and this is what he did. for two years, sean was secretly buying tranquilisers as well as strong opiate painkillers from a uk based website. then in 2016 he collapsed following an accidental overdose. so i rang 999 and then proceeded to do cpr, but i knew it was too late. then the ambulance came
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and theyjust said, yes, the recording was flat, and that was the end of my darling sean. the pharmacy that dispensed the drugs to sean has now stopped working with the online company that prescribed them. i want to know more about some of the doctors who prescribe for online sites, so i've come to romania. i've discovered that a number of uk—based websites source their doctors through companies based here. this is timisoira close
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to the hungarian border. home, according to the current register of romanian companies, to eurorx, the firm struck—off doctorjulian eden jointly owns. i was expecting it to be a medical clinic? i was expecting it to be a medical clinic or to at least have some doctors here, but in fact itjust looks like a residential flat. that's because it is just a flat. an address that means websites using his doctors can't be regulated by the cqc. it doesn't matter where the doctors live, or where they come from, just so long as they're contracted by a company outside england. and i've discovered another website using exactly the same romanian loophole. only this one is fronted by a famous face. kirsty, i hear you've had a little trauma? these are friction burns. yeah. right, how long ago was this?
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two days ago. two days ago ? what you have done is scraped a few layers of skin there. celebrity doctor christian jessen star of channel four‘s embarrassing bodies is also the star of a website called uk meds. it's not cqc registered. pain can range from mild to unbearable, but can nearly always be addressed with the right medications. uk meds, which is based in nottingham, was set up in 2016 and has already made £1.7 million in profit. what could it offer our volunteers? meet sunny, he's a former heroin addict. i became addicted to opiates, illicit opiates for a number of years. this had a massive detrimental impact in terms of my health. i managed to breakfree of this over a decade ago. sarah was also addicted to heroin and then prescription drugs. when heroin flooded the streets, it was a jump onto opiates.
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which actually, you know, destroyed my life, really, for a short time, i've been clean now for 17 years. sunny fills in a uk meds questionnaire giving a false medical history. he pays £49.95 plus delivery for 100 tablets of the opiate—based painkiller, dihydrocodeine. this is my package, which is dihydrocodeine. in the wrong hands this could kind of really have a negative impact for people, because there's been no interaction with a healthcare professional other than answering a few questions over the internet. sarah also gives a false medical history. she buys another painkiller, pregabalin, a drug which is becoming increasingly abused. she pays £59.95 plus delivery for 56 tablets. well the package has arrived
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so quickly, less than 24 hours since i ordered the pills and they're here. how surprising is that? it's shocking and disgusting. dangerous pills being endorsed by celebrities over the internet. the uk meds website let sunny and sarah click on the drugs they wanted before their online consultations. both said they didn't want their gps contacting if any issues arose. sunny and sarah were perfectly well, but what about patients genuinely looking for relief from pain, including long term, chronic pain? if you need a stronger pain medication such as codeine and co—codamol, the 0nline doctors service at uk—meds may be able to help you. drjessen, who also says in the video opiates can be highly addictive and should only be used
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under a doctor's supervision, suggests the painkilling drugs are effective. but recent medical research suggests for most people with long—term pain, drugs don't work. we would all like to help people in long term pain and it's very distressing and disabling and actually patients with pain are very vulnerable. i think it is very difficult for patients to understand that in these days of advanced technologies, we still haven't cracked this and you can quite see if a patient is in pain that they could be very seduced by this. we showed the site to the royal pharmaceutical society. as a professional body we do not support a promotional or promotion of prescription only medicines. in my professional opinion as chief
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scientist what i saw on that website was direct promotion to patients and actually indirect promotion to patients. so it is something we wouldn't support and is something we should really raise with the drug regulators as not being appropriate. after writing to uk meds and dr christian jessen with the results of my investigation, i watched as the website changed in front of my eyes. that's changed. although uk meds says it had nothing to do with panorama. the main page which has got this logo here to get the treatment you need used to have his face directly underneath it and now doesn't. one of our patients was able to get the highest strength of pregabalin at 300mg, there used to be another box here but it's now gone. drjessen's face no longer appears next to the price of the drugs on sale and the order now button. uk meds say they'd already changed online questionnaires.
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many more questions about the type of problem you have, they're asking about where the pain is, how bad it is, none of these questions were there the other day. a clarification alongside the videos featuring drjessen now says they're for information purposes only. if you have any specific concerns about your health, please consult your gp. a spokesperson for drjessen says he was engaged by uk meds to present short information videos. he does not prescribe medication, nor does he endorse a specific product, service or brand. uk meds say patient care and safety is at the core of their business, that they're registered with the mhra and general pharmaceutical council, and comply with all their regulations and that the doctors they contract through a romanian company
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are all gmc registered. there's one more website i want to investigate and it has a connection to struck—off doctorjulian eden. bolton in lancashire, home to a designer called riaz vali. he owns an online doctor service called all dan has to do is select his medicine and answer a few simple medicines questions. 0nce our doctor has approved his prescription our uk pharmacy will dispense his medicine and deliver it to him all within 2a hours. has versions of its website in nine european countries as well as in the uk. following an inspection by the cqc in 2016, it reduced the number of drugs on offer to patients in england. but it didn't have to make the same
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changes to its other sites. i'm on my way to france to meet a journalist who's agreed to order drugs from — drugs a patient in england wouldn't be able to buy. she completes a questionnaire falsely claiming she has a history of repeated urine infections and now she's got another one. she chooses the antibiotic ciprofloxacin and is prescribed it. so scroll down here onto this one here. that's it. the drugs arrive three days later. they have sent me ciprofloxacin 500mg with instructions in english and french saying take one tablet twice daily for seven days, that's it. we've been told this broad spectrum antibiotic should never normally be
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prescribed as a first line treatment. and that doing so flies in the face of european—wide concerns about antibiotic resistance. antimicrobial resistance has been growing, i think everybody knows about the serious problem we're facing for the future if we don't look after our antibiotics properly. the chief medical officer has made it a major campaign. so, to find out that people are buying antibiotics that aren't being used appropriately is shocking, it's distressing, and, quite frankly, it's wrong. the drugs were dispensed by this pharmacy in bolton called natcol. it's also owned by riaz vali. and the doctors who prescribed those antibiotics? they were hired by through julian eden's romanian company eurorx. time for our undercover laurence to meetjulian eden again.
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she takes a colleague with her. i'm fine, thank you, and you? they ask him more question about his doctor hire company in romania. what's the name of the company? eurorx. where's the company based? romania. 0k. so we contact them? you email them. so how much do the doctors cost? are they very expensive? no, they're not, they're quite... they‘ re quite reasonably priced, yeah. you pay these doctors per prescription. you don't get, they're not employed by you guys. so the pricing would be per consultation, then? yeah. do you have an idea of the price? no, between £5 and £10. 0k. per accepted prescription. doctors paid per accepted prescription and not in the best interests of their patients.
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i take a very dim view of anybody who profits from human misery and harm, and the reality is, if people are prescribing inappropriately and in unsafe ways, they're profiteering from harm. it's not moral, it's not ethical, and it's just not right. julian eden told us he respects the cqc and has never sought to evade its oversight. he says his shareholding in eurorx romania is simply a sensible business investment in wider markets, all of which are subject to their own regulators. riaz vali told us that it is not appropriate to comment on individual prescriptions but that he takes the issue of bacterial resistance and responsible prescribing seriously. he says and natcol satisfy all legal and regulatory requirements. i've discovered there have been complaints about uk—based doctor sites from nine european countries, including france, to the uk drug regulator the mhra.
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panorama has contacted the department of health and social care and all the relevant regulators in the uk with the details of my investigation. as a gp, it makes me very angry that patients are put at risk. and as a regulator it makes me even more certain that we need to try and get the legislation changed so that people can'tjust bypass our regulatory activities. but they fear unless action is taken europe—wide, online doctor sites seeking to put profit before patient care may continue to find ways to stay one step ahead. a very warm welcome to bbc news — broadcasting to our viewers in north america and around the globe. my name's mike embley. our top stories: an airstrike by the saudi—led coalition in yemen hits a school bus, killing and injuring dozens of children. vice president pence unveils plans for a new space force, a sixth branch of the us military.
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