Prescription drug too expensive? Is it safe to source it online?

What happens when the medication prescribed to you by your health specialist is unavailable? Or if your expensive prescription medication is simply unaffordable? Can you look overseas for a replacement? And can your GP help you with that? Perhaps most importantly, should they help you with that?

For someone who has been through the experience of not being able to access prescription medication deemed necessary, this is a confronting and potentially angst-ridden dilemma.

The truth is that, in many cases, the medication that’s either unavailable or unaffordable in Australia is accessible through overseas channels, and often legally so.

Problem solved? Not quite. There are several complicating factors that may need to be navigated before your prescribed medicine arrives at your door.

But for starters, many people are simply unaware that there may be an equivalent and/or cheaper option available outside Australia. One Macquarie University medical ethics researcher is calling for doctors to make their patients aware of the alternatives, particularly given the cost-of-living squeeze.

In an article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Dr Narcyz Ghinea argues that doctors have a responsibility to ensure their patients – particularly those from low socioeconomic backgrounds who already struggle to afford the medicines they need – are aware that cheaper identical medications are readily available through online order from abroad.

In theory, there should be no issue with your doctor dispensing advice about overseas options when they are dispensing your prescription. But it is not a common practice – at least not yet – and the legal ramifications associated with doctors helping patients to source medication from overseas have yet to be tested.

However, Dr Ghinea believes such potential hurdles should be relatively easily solved. As part of a framework, he proposes in his paper that advice and assistance would work in a similar way to the Special Access Scheme, which, in certain circumstances, allows doctors to prescribe medicines and devices that are not included on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods.

Such a framework seems like an excellent idea on the surface of it, but Dr Ghinea acknowledges there are potential risks.

The biggest of those is the proliferation of unscrupulous operators willing to take advantage of people looking for cheaper medicines. Such operators will sell medication that contains an insufficient amount of the active component. In some cases, that ingredient is missing entirely.

Such cases are by no means rare. As part of an Interpol crackdown on such activity in 2021, a staggering 113,000 websites selling unauthorised medicines were removed or had their URLs blocked in the UK.

Dr Ghinea agrees that it is expecting a lot of a workforce that is already under pressure to navigate such treacherous waters.

“But when the system is failing people”, he says, “it can be argued that doctors do have an extra duty towards patients to help them overcome those failures, and one way they can do that is by helping them access cheaper medications from abroad.”

Addressing the potential risks that come with providing such help, Dr Ghinea says: “Of course, there are risks that need to be considered. But patients missing out on treatment they need because of cost is also risky.”

Being made aware of the fact that many prescription medications can be legally accessed from outside Australia is a start at least. Last year, Australia experienced a shortage of a drug known as Saflutan, which, taken as daily eyedrops, helps to reduce raised eye pressure associated with a type of glaucoma with which I have been diagnosed.

When my local pharmacist’s supply ran out, I travelled through several Melbourne suburbs in fruitless search of a pharmacy that had some in stock. Thankfully, the shortage was short-lived. But had it not been, there may have been a long-term risk to my sight.

I had no idea that it was legal to source medications from overseas. If nothing else, Dr Ghinea’s campaign will at least make more Australians aware that there are options available.

Have you missed taking prescribed or recommended medication because it was unavailable or too expensive? Were you aware of the legal option to purchase such medication from abroad? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

Also read: Calls for prescription-free COVID antiviral drugs

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.


  1. Yes most of that is true, but why is it always the first thought when this happens, if there is going to be shortages on medicines (which we just can not allow) is go online and find the product, when firstly we all know how unsafe this can be with medicine, secondly would it not be better to expand and grow our production here, in what we call this great country of ours, stop giving and start producing for the good of the country and everyone that lives here, surely that must be a better way.

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