By Rich Quelch, Global Head of Marketing, Origin
The role of and reliance on community pharmacies during the COVID-19 pandemic changed dramatically, with pharmacy teams working on the frontline to support and protect local citizens.
Part of this response included the accelerated development and adoption of pharmaceutical e-commerce which saw massive pandemic-induced growth. And this shows no signs of slowing down.
In fact, analysts predict the e-pharmacy market is expected to be worth USD 136,160.27 million in five years’ time, representing a CAGR of 13.84 percent between 2020 and 2026.
With the emergency phase of the pandemic now (hopefully) behind us, now is the perfect time to review the e-pharmacy market, its drivers and what the future holds for pharmacists, pharmaceutical companies and importantly, patients.
The rise and rise of pharmaceutical e-commerce
Alongside the pandemic, there has also been an observable longer-term trend which has fuelled the rise of the e-pharmacy, with consumers seeking convenience, reliability and affordability in every transaction they do online.
Having been able to purchase things like food, entertainment and fashion online with ease for many years now, consumers are now driving the shift to e-commerce in more complex categories such OTC, medical devices and prescription medicines.
If we stick with this trajectory and governments and regulators continue to support initiatives for the online purchasing of medicines and promote inward investment into the sector, e-pharmacy has the potential to widen access to life-changing medicines, cut administration costs, increase dispensing speed and create better health outcomes.
The changing role of community pharmacies
Pharmacy businesses are under pressure from several confounding challenges, including shrinking reimbursements, rising rent costs, below-cost prescription rates, large chain pharmacies consolidating and new online-only market entrants – like Amazon in the U.S.
Pharmacies were also heavily impacted during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders which saw reduced footfall and in-person visits, and increased staff shortages. Some community pharmacy owners looked for exit strategies, leading to further consolidation.
But e-commerce has the potential to transform the sector, long after COVID-19. And as the role of pharmacist continues to expand into more patient-focused care, the need for better technologies is vital – from both a public health and a commercial perspective.
The pharmacy of the future will prioritise personalised patient experience. And remote monitoring technologies, telehealth and adopting new online communication channels will underpin this, helping pharmacy leaders deliver quality of service, make smarter business decisions and diversify their incomes.
The challenges of technological transformation
As with any technological transformation, there are challenges that need to be considered, addressed and overcome to protect patients, their data and fair competition.
As pharmacy services and access to drugs move online, the risk of falsified or counterfeit drugs in circulation increases. Building consumer trust and protecting public safety will be a key focus as the market matures.
So too will be protecting the e-pharmacy market from consumer fraud and cyberattacks, with criminals looking to exploit vulnerabilities in online systems and the sharing of sensitive patient data for financial gain.
Intensifying competition in the online e-pharmacy space will also affect “traditional” pharmacies.
Unlike in the U.S, drug prices in the UK are regulated. This means new market entrants like Amazon into the e-pharmacy space would not be able to compete with pharmacies on price, but rather on convenience and speed. It also has much more sizeable purchase power and the logistics infrastructure to cut out the middlemen in the supply chain, and hence reduce costs.
The future of the e-pharmacy market
So, what can we expect from the e-pharmacy market as it expands and matures? And how can bricks-and-mortar pharmacies remain central to providing healthcare services and drug delivery in their local communities in the digital age?
There’s a clear need for a future-ready digital health system, with a resilient digital backbone. But the pharmacies will never be fully online or automated.
As part of the transition to medical e-commerce 2.0, pharmacies will aim to offer convenient and quality medical services by combining offline and online touchpoints, including the adoption of more diverse communication channels consultations over phone, WhatsApp, email, live chat and video alongside in-person interactions. This will also support more pharmacies to offer out-of-hours services and fit around our busy lifestyles.
Next-generation medical devices and packaging technologies will help facilitate the move toward patient-centric health models where monitoring and aftercare are delivered outside of clinical settings.
This will affect the future role of the community pharmacist in how drugs are dispensed and ensuring safety once the drugs are in a domestic environment.
The integration of intelligent monitoring technology into existing medical packaging (such as blister packs) or devices is supporting this goal and creating rich patient data sets for clinicians to analyse and act on via the cloud. Scannable QR codes or digital instruction booklets can also be shared with patients who have tablets or smartphones, supporting safety and compliance without the need to discuss instructions in detail with a pharmacist.
Smarter ordering and dispensing platforms powered by AI and big data, will underpin more intuitive and faster decision-making (using less resources) to cut delivery times, prioritise patients based on their individual needs and reduce the risk of drug shortages which are becoming all too common.
We can also expect more community pharmacies to expand into offering more lifestyle-focused products online (such as hair loss treatments, supplements and weight loss aids) to diversify their revenue streams and offer additional value to their customer bases. The size of customers virtual baskets will significantly increase with greater convenience.
While online pharmacy will never – and should never – replace the role of community pharmacy, it will unlock greater value for business owners, staff and local citizens. In turn, this will ease the pressure on GP surgeries and hospitals which are facing record waiting times and are often forced to prioritise acute care.
Healthcare, for too long, as been focused on reactive services. By using technology, community pharmacists will be able to support the drive to a more proactive healthcare model, where individuals are empowered to live healthier, happier lives.