More than 2 million Americans buy prescription drugs from other countries as a way around rising prices in the United States, a new study finds.
The analysis of nationwide survey data showed that 1.5% of adults got their prescription meds from outside the United States between 2015 and 2017.
Immigrants and people who were older or who had inadequate health insurance coverage and tight budgets were more likely to do so. Those who use the internet for health care information were, as well, the findings showed.
The findings were published online June 24 in JAMA Network Open.
The number of Americans looking for cheaper prescription drugs is likely to rise due to the spike in unemployment stemming from the coronavirus pandemic and the loss of work-based health insurance, according to the University of Florida (UF) researchers.
"With the economic and health consequences of COVID-19 disproportionately impacting minority and low-income populations, more people in those groups may be seeking an alternative way to meet their medication needs," said lead study author Young-Rock Hong, an assistant professor of health services research, management and policy at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions.
Safety is a big concern with international medication purchases, the researchers said in a university news release. One in 10 medications sold in the world are substandard or fake, the World Health Organization estimates.
Study co-author Juan Hincapie-Castillo, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical outcomes and policy, stressed that "patients might not be getting what they think they are getting."
He said this is particularly dangerous to patients for whom even a small deviation in dose can have severe consequences.
With more Americans likely to buy prescription drugs outside the United States, patient education and stringent quality control are crucial, Hong said.
"Patients should be informed of these potential risks they can encounter, and policies that seek to pursue drug importation should reinforce quality assurance and strict monitoring processes to promote safe administration of imported medication in the U.S. market," Hong said.
The American Medical Association has more on prescription drug prices.