The future of pharmacy: strengths and weaknesses of an online prescription model

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By Tristan Morris


In recent years, the takeover of online general practice services, and in particular online pharmacy, has made medicines more accessible to the average patient. This isn’t just a symptom of the rise of digital, but equally seems to be a result of common issues as observed by the public – obtaining treatment or services online eliminates lengthy wait times, avoids uncomfortable conversations concerning conditions with stigma attached, and equally appeals to the ‘digital generation’; those who expect fast and personalised services.  

The impact of COVID-19 has exacerbated this – with online consultations, diagnosis via photograph or symptom checkers, and of course, online prescription fulfilment on the rise as patients attempted to stay home as much as possible. This shift to a digital way of working was already underway in the healthcare space, but the pandemic has created the need for new practicalities, new investments in tech, and a new way to engage with patients – and it looks like this impact is here to stay. NHS England state that personalised care will positively impact 2.4 million patients by the year 2024. 

Plenty of organisations within the healthcare space are already working to this new, digital model, but there are plenty being left behind in the dust. There’s now not only a need to digitise (as always), but equally an opportunity for those brands that are ahead of the curve to leave the competition behind. Without considering the future of the industry, and how their business will be impacted, it’s impossible for them to do so. 

Where are we now?

The focus of online pharmacy in recent years has tended towards services and treatments with an element of stigma attached. Notable examples include birth control, erectile dysfunction medication, the morning after pill, and PrEP , among others. It’s likely that these have been prioritised due to:

  • Patients being reluctant to speak to someone directly, as several of these include questions surrounding sexual history and further personal information.
  • Ease of access – online pharmacies can offer these on the same or next day, appealing to those patients that prefer a speedier service.
  • Price. Instead of these medicines being prescribed, some are available for higher cost, making this method more beneficial for the pharmacy. In plenty of cases, the price point is much higher than the standard prescription cost, plus delivery costs.
  • Due to these reasons, we’re seeing more services move online – travel vaccinations, chronic disease treatments and skincare treatments for conditions like psoriasis and acne have also become available via online consultations.

    Where are we going?

    As a result of online diagnoses becoming the norm in 2020 and 2021, it’s likely that we’ll see further availability of medication and treatment online. It’s estimated that the online pharmacy market in Europe will grow by 14% between 2019 and 2025, and we’re seeing this rise already. Conditions that are relatively common, or easy to diagnose, could soon find their place in online pharmacy, in addition to more complex treatment systems. Plenty of online pharmacies currently provide medication, provided there is a 24-hour GP review, or a digital consultation before anything is shipped to the patient – this resolves issues that could arise from digital prescriptions, and creates a process that is faster for all parties, and reduces admin. It’s effectively creating a space where patients are given the ability to diagnose themselves using the correct tools – something that is already taking place due to the frequency that patients Google potential conditions. The modern doctor is used to patients being armed with (often incorrect) information about their potential conditions – this way, healthcare providers can ensure that they have a space to be providing accurate data.

    There is a potential issue that has held back development in this area – concerns that a digital, online consultation could mean that GPs lose the nuances of face-to-face contact, meaning greater room for error when it comes to diagnosing patients. If ordering medication is based on a predeveloped questionnaire, then it may be the case that previous ailments, undisclosed symptoms that aren’t viewed as relevant, or family histories could be missed. Equally, there has been concern that without thorough review, and even a video call with a healthcare provider, then users could select symptoms and answers that give the result they want, rather than the correct one.

    What does this mean?

    For healthcare providers, this may mean that we see online pharmacy tools deployed at the same time as virtual appointments for more complex health issues – adding this element eliminate some of the above concerns, and equally provides a more personable experience. It’s likely that this will become a halfway point between traditional appointments in person and the new, digital model.

    For organisations, we’re due to see a huge amount of competition in the online pharmacy market. Key high street players like Superdrug and Boots are dominating in terms of the younger generation, and new, or independent pharmacies, need to be able to keep up with the shift to digital. Equally, defending pharmacies that are reliant on repeat, loyal customers need to cast an eye forward for the next step. This could be in the form of a more complex service offering, a more personalised journey for patients, or just a digital strategy that allows them to provide correct, useful content to their current audiences, while simultaneously attracting new audiences that value digital engagement.

    By looking ahead and committing to a more data-driven approach, organisations can find the right audience quickly and effectively for various medications. Through engaging with them online and converting them to the correct level of care, brands can sell more product, create a greater patient experience, and carve out a place for themselves in the new healthcare landscape.

    Optimising your strategy for the future of Pharmacy

    BBI Health work with key players in the healthcare industry, helping brands to gain and maintain a competitive advantage in line with new industry developments. Get in touch to find out more about how we can help reach wider audiences with performance marketing.