Can Online Doctors Write Pain Med Prescriptions?

Pain is a serious medical issue in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 11 to 40 percent of Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain at some point in life.

The advent of technology means there are now new ways to talk to a doctor if leaving your house is inconvenient. Doctors may be able to talk to you over the phone, through video, or via an app. (Learn More)
It used to be illegal for doctors to prescribe controlled substances after a telemedicine appointment, but this has changed.

Laws vary by state, but in many states, it is possible to get a prescription for pain medication after a telemedicine appointment. Oftentimes, at least one in-person visit is required first, though the laws on this are continually changing. (Learn More)

Many sites claim to provide prescriptions after you complete a basic questionnaire. This is not a legitimate telemedicine visit, and they are not issuing real prescriptions. These sites are just aiming to rip off customers. (Learn More)

After you have a valid prescription, you may choose to buy your medicine online. This is convenient, but it can also be risky. Make sure you are purchasing your pain meds from a legitimate pharmacy, as there are many scam sites that sell counterfeit versions of these medications. (Learn More)

doctor helping patient over laptop

What Is Telemedicine?

Telemedicine allows doctors to conduct visits remotely. They take your questions and offer consultation via phone, text, video, or apps.

Doctors who practice telemedicine must have a license from their state board. Each state has specific laws that govern the practice of telemedicine.

In the United States, telemedicine involves a licensed doctor who is simply available to provide medical services remotely. This is ideal for those who live in rural areas or are otherwise unable to easily access medical care.

State Laws Govern Online Prescriptions

States have different ways to regulate telemedicine doctors. Laws regarding the practice of telemedicine are expanding and changing rapidly. Be sure to consult the laws in your state before you engage in telemedicine services.

  • The District of Columbia and 28 other states require private insurance companies and Medicaid to reimburse patients for the cost of telehealth services.
  • State law can also influence what online doctors can do for patients.
  • Patients in Mississippi can talk to doctors through video, chat, or other communication services. Only some of these methods of communication are covered through state Medicaid. Audio-only communication is not covered. Doctors must use video and audio for the state to determine eligibility for reimbursement or coverage.
  • The state of New York says that online doctors can diagnose, provide consultation, or assess a patient’s case. Physicians may prescribed medication-assisted treatment (for opioid use disorders) via telemedicine if deemed appropriate.
  • California’s Medical Board allows doctors to advise, consult, or treat patients through online communication. In some instances, medications can be prescribed via telemedicine.

Some states allow for the prescription of controlled substances via telemedicine appointments. Many states do not allow this without an initial in-person visit.

When it comes to opioid prescriptions, there are often additional regulations. Some states allow for the telemedicine prescription of opioid-based drugs like buprenorphine to treat opioid addiction specifically.

How to Spot Legitimate Online Pharmacies

Valid online pharmacies are licensed to fill prescriptions in the U.S. They have a physical address in the U.S. and a licensed pharmacist on staff.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) states that it is unlawful to buy pain relievers online unless you have a proper prescription. The DEA defines a proper prescription as one that is obtained through a visit with a licensed physician. Once you have a prescription for pain medication, you can buy your medicine through an online pharmacy if they are licensed and based in the U.S.

There are many unlicensed online pharmacies that say they provide their own doctor. Unknowing patients then complete this rogue online pharmacy’s questionnaire and assume that a prescription from the “doctor” at this pharmacy is lawful.

If you get a fake prescription this way:

  • You could be subject to legal consequences if caught with an unlawful prescription.
  • The illegitimate operation may use your personal info to steal your identity or defraud you.
  • If you buy pain medications from a rogue online pharmacy, you might receive expired or ineffective medication. You may even receive something else altogether. In some cases, harmful substances like fentanyl are substituting for well-known prescription painkillers like Vicodin.

If you choose to buy your prescription pain meds online, make sure the pharmacy complies with the criteria set by the Food and Drug Administration.

  • The pharmacy must have a valid license from your state.
  • A legitimate pharmacy will ask for a prescription from a licensed physician.
  • A U.S.-based street address is provided.
  • A licensed pharmacist is on staff in case you have questions.

man with chronic back pain

Frequently Asked Questions

How prevalent is chronic pain?

Chronic pain is a common problem in the United States today. The CDC says that 11 to 40 percent of Americans deal with this at some point.

What is telemedicine?

Telemedicine is when licensed doctors see patients remotely, often via video appointments.

What does the law say about an online doctor’s ability to prescribe pain medications?

Per the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2008, doctors need to see a patient in person at least once before remotely prescribing controlled substances. Special provisions for telehealth services have been created, so in some cases, these medications can be prescribed via telemedicine.

Exact laws regarding the prescription of pain meds via telehealth services vary by state. Many telehealth doctors will not prescribe opioids without an in-person visit.

What about sites that don’t require a prescription?

If you find an online pharmacy that is willing to sell you prescription pain medication without a valid prescription, you are dealing with an illegal pharmacy. You may receive medication that is fake or the wrong dose. It could even contain a deadly substance like fentanyl.

References

Telemedicine Policies. Federation of State Medical Boards.
A State by State Look at the State of Telemedicine. (March 2016). Med City News.
Frequently Asked Questions – Internet Prescribing and Practicing. Medical Board of California.
Consumer Alert: Report Suspected Unlawful Sales of Pharmaceutical Drugs on the Internet. U.S. Department of Justice — DEA Diversion Control.
How to Buy Medicines Safely From an Online Pharmacy. (January 2018). U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Prevalence of Chronic Pain and High-Impact Chronic Pain Among Adults—United States, 2016. (September 2018). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Issue Brief: Telemedicine in Mississippi. (January 2017). Center for Mississippi Health Policy.
New York State Medicaid Update. (February 2019). The New York State Department of Health.

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