As a society, we are moving towards ways of buying products that have the potential to save us time. For many people, online pharmacies have become a convenient option.
Over the years we have seen a rise in the number of prescriptions that are being fulfilled by distant selling pharmacies (DSPs).
And COVID-19 has accelerated this shift – as it has in so many sectors of the economy. Since January, DSPs have seen a dramatic increase in the total number of items sold.
Unsurprisingly, Amazon has recently entered the US pharmacy market and have trademarked key terms to prime themselves to follow a similar path in the UK.
Does the traditional bricks and mortar community pharmacy still have a place?
In a word?
Despite the convenience online pharmacies bring, they are not for everyone. I think we can all relate to the frustration felt when we see a ‘Sorry, we missed you’ card in our letterbox because we were not at home to sign for our delivery. We all live busy lives and convenience comes in different forms for each of us.
Depending on your situation or routine, dropping into a local pharmacy might not take away value from your day. For some, a short stop on the way to or from work will be preferable to waiting for a delivery. For others, the face-to-face contact with their local pharmacist could be of particular importance, especially now when so many patients are stuck inside deprived of human interaction.
Furthermore, community pharmacies are able to offer vital services that cannot be outsourced or replaced online; including but not limited to flu vaccines, travel clinics, weight loss assistance, and micro-suction earwax removal.
Rather than competitors, online and community pharmacies are complementary, providing convenience in different ways to different customers.
A good example of that can be found with Lloydspharmacy, which is pushing the convenience that online pharmacies can offer whilst simultaneously using the physical presence of their stores to offer choice to their patients.
Lloydspharmacy is actively encouraging patients to register for their app-based online service Echo, the revenue from which has increased 300% since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Patients using the app have the choice of having their medication delivered to a selected address, most likely at home or work, or collecting at one of Lloydspharmacy’s 1000-plus branches. The medication is dispensed at Echo’s centrally-located pharmacy and, if the patient prefers click-and-collect to home delivery, taken to the branch pre-packed and ready to pick up.
Boots and Co-op have also introduced pick-up lockers, an idea borrowed from retailers like Amazon. These lockers allow patients to go to a pick-up point in a pharmacy or, in the case of the Co-op, a food store, with a unique code that grants them access to a locker containing their order.
For pharmacists and community pharmacies, the overlap between online and face-to-face can be hugely beneficial. Though not everyone will want to take their medication needs online – meaning that in-store pharmacists will still spend time dispensing medication – an increase in the number of people who order for delivery or collection does indicate that community pharmacists will have more time on their hands.
Consequently, they will have more time to invest in the provision of services. For Lloydspharmacy, the company’s in-store pharmacists can now dedicate themselves to providing services like their £260-a-month private weight loss scheme, stop smoking help plan, or six-step health check-ups. Companies like PharmaDoctor also provide innovative services in across community pharmacy.
Even though smaller groups or independent community pharmacies may not have the resources to found their own online service or buy out a company like Echo, the shift in Lloydspharmacy’s business model could give us a window into the future for them, too.
By partnering with a service like the Healthera app and Patient Access, independents can take advantage of this move to online ordering. Healthera provides a repeat prescription service personalised to each pharmacy that allows patients to collect their medication without needing to visit their GP again and again or wait in line.
This also provides pharmacists with an opening to offer relevant services to patients. When a patient drops by to collect, the pharmacist can take the time they would have previously spent dispensing the medication to inquire about the patent’s wellbeing and, if appropriate, suggest services or additional products that could be of benefit. With the margins on NHS prescriptions slimmer than the margins on many services, that could help community pharmacies boost profitability.
Compared to retail, pharmacy is relatively late to the party in terms of moving towards an online model of sales – a tiny fraction of prescriptions are currently fulfilled online.
But change is afoot. The cheese is already moving.
According to statistics from ResearchAndMarkets.com, the global online pharmacy market is expected to grow at over 20% annually between 2019 and 2025, with the UK cited as one of many key growth potential markets.
Rather than pushing community pharmacies under, new developments in online ordering should be seen as an opportunity.
The rise of online pharmacies and can be of benefit to local high-street pharmacists, who, using the extra time through a reduced dispensing workload, can provide valuable services that make them uniquely useful to patients.
The market is changing, and those changes can benefit us all.
Reece Samani is a pharmacist. He is also the founder of Signature Pharmacy and The Locum App.