American Healthcare Sucks So Much That People Are Trading Medication Online

A new study links the traditional healthcare system’s numerous failings to the rise of illicit market medical trade.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
Photo by Maskot via Getty Images

For some people, the idea of buying and selling prescription drugs and medical supplies on the illicit market might conjure visions of Breaking Bad, but for many Americans managing chronic illnesses, underground medication trading is a vital part of staying healthy. New research published in the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology found that people with diabetes who participate in donating, trading, selling, or buying medication outside of the healthcare system do so because mainstream healthcare is a colossal, life-threatening failure.


"People have to make a decision. Do they want to maintain their health? And, if so, what are the medications and tools that they need in order to stay healthy?" the study's lead author, Michelle Litchman, said in a statement. "In some cases, people have had to go to extreme measures and find a network that can supply their healthcare needs."

Researchers from the University of Utah Health and the University of Colorado surveyed 159 people with diabetes and their caregivers. They found that more than half of those surveyed participated in the underground trading of medical supplies critical to managing diabetes, like insulin and glucose strips. Non-monetary exchanges were most common in the illicit marketplace: More than half of the respondents had donated medical supplies before, more than a third had been given donated medical supplies, and around one in five participants reported trading or borrowing medical supplies.

The majority of the participants said the major motivation for their move to the illicit market was “financial necessity,” along with accessibility issues—most of the people surveyed actually had health insurance at the time of their underground market interactions. Those who donated medical supplies to other people (including loved ones and strangers in need), said they felt especially compelled to do so because they felt bad about keeping their excess supply when they knew other people were going without.

The study listed a number of risks involved in engaging in illicit market medical trade, including patients receiving faulty equipment or tainted, expired, or incorrect medications. But the study’s authors were careful to highlight the fact that the demand for an underground market did not materialize out of thin air. Instead, the researchers tied its existence directly to the inadequate care available to the average American.

"Underground trading of medications and supplies isn't ideal. But what other real solutions exist so that people can actually get what they need without increasing bureaucratic delays and burden?" Litchman said. "Our study points to an urgent need to improve access to medications that are essential for life." Since people are still dying from lack of access to insulin, it makes sense that people will do whatever it takes to get the supplies they need to survive.

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