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Morning-After Pill Intensifies Internet Prescribing Debate

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WebMD Health News

March 9, 2001 (Washington) -- Need a prescription? More and more, Americans are turning to their computer for prescriptions instead of scheduling an appointment to see their doctor. A hotly debated phenomenon, Internet prescribing is convenient -- and sometimes cheaper -- than a brick-and-mortar pharmacy.

Now recent news that prescriptions for the morning-after pill are available online has intensified the debate.

"Consumers want this [Internet prescriptions]. They definitely want it," says Tania Malik, chief executive officer of VirtualMedicalGroup, an Internet company that offers a variety of online medical services to patients.

Her company, which has a national network of doctors on staff, already is prescribing for 18 conditions over the Internet -- conditions ranging from female hair removal to travelers' diarrhea. So far, the operation is limited to four states where the rules permit certain prescriptions without a direct medical exam of a patient the doctor doesn't know.

And now women who are concerned about having unprotected sex can get help on the web. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America is offering the morning-after pill to women living in Illinois and Georgia via the Internet.

"This is an attempt to make [emergency contraception] more accessible while still fully complying with all the appropriate state and federal laws," Vasyl Markus, Planned Parenthood's vice president for policy in Chicago, tells WebMD.

He's hoping the approach will spread nationwide.

Markus says a woman can get a medical assessment online for $40, then the prescription, which runs between $25 and $35 -- a little less than getting the pills directly -- is called into a pharmacy.

However, a physical exam is not required. That's what concerns critics of Internet prescribing.

"The larger issue is prescribing on the Internet, where technically you need a prescription as of now, and the Internet company provides you a 2-D doctor whom you interact with by answering a few questions," Sidney Wolfe, MD, director of the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen, tells WebMD.

"Hopefully, eventually, that patient will be seen by a healthcare professional," Tom McGinnis, director of pharmacy affairs for the FDA, tells WebMD. McGinnis says that it's not uncommon for women getting this medication to arrange for a prescription in advance.

Markus explains that if there is a need to see the patient, that will become obvious from the questionnaire patients are required to fill out to get a prescription for the morning-after pill, or emergency contraception. He says emergency contraception is extremely safe -- it prevents an embryo from implanting on the womb wall, thereby preventing pregnancy. It doesn't cause an abortion.

Antiabortion rights groups disagree. They argue that if an embryo has formed, preventing it from developing is tantamount to destroying life.

There also are concerns that online prescribing will make it easier for young women to get these pills, thereby encouraging promiscuity.

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