- Associated Press - Friday, August 6, 2010

LONDON (AP) - The doctor will see you now: Just click here.

In Britain, an increasing number of websites are pushing the boundaries of online medicine, with at least a dozen sites offering consultations and medication most countries only allow during in-person visits _ or remote ones with the help of a webcam or telephone call.

The sites are completely legal, and fall under the jurisdiction of a regulator called the Care Quality commission. Not surprisingly, the most in-demand drugs are for erectile dysfunction, sexually transmitted diseases and hair loss.

The websites don’t handle serious medical problems or emergencies and don’t deal in narcotics, painkillers or other drugs people could become addicted to.

“The British websites are definitely an exception, but they are the start of a trend we will soon see everywhere,” said Dr. Steinar Pedersen, a founder and special adviser at the Norwegian Centre for Telemedicine.

“Opinions will change as people become more comfortable with technology,” he said.

Pedersen didn’t know of any countries beyond Britain where online medicine for patients who don’t know the doctors and don’t ever speak to them is legal. The European Commission does not monitor such medical websites, but is working on a paper addressing the legal issues of telemedicine.

In countries including Canada, Denmark, Norway, Germany, and France, doctors are only allowed to treat patients online if they have previously seen them in person.

In the United States, several companies offer online medicine, but patients must typically speak to a doctor on the telephone or set up a videoconference for a live, face-to-face chat.

The Canadian Medical Association said doctors who approve prescriptions for patients they haven’t seen in person face losing their licenses.

But that’s not the case in Britain, where rules are more lax.

The Care Quality Commission only oversees the work of doctors in private practice. Practitioners who work for the government are exempt from regulation altogether. If drugs are prescribed, the sites must be registered with a drug regulatory agency.

The websites typically charge for a doctor’s consultation fee from about 8 pounds to more than 20 pounds ($13 to more than $30) that is not covered by the national health system. Some even ship a very small percentage of their drugs abroad; in Europe, it is legal for medication to cross borders as long as it is for personal use.

The commission monitors medical websites primarily to ensure the doctors running them are licensed.

“We inspect their offices if we get complaints, but otherwise they are monitored by self-assessment,” said a spokesman for the commission, who did not want to be identified in line with government policy.

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