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E-pharmacies - high on convenience, but won’t take over chemist shops any time soon

The pharmacy sector has proved to be the backbone of the fight against COVID-19, ensuring that vital medicines were available for consumers even as the entire country was under lockdown. Being considered part of the essential services, pharmacies were the only outlets allowed to be opened 24x7 during the pandemic times.

And as with almost every sector during the pandemic the pharmacy sector also saw accelerated traction on Digital, with e-pharmacies taking precedence. Even prior to the pandemic, we had been seeing the growth of e-pharmacies such as Netmeds. Some have also branched out to providing online doctors consultations, thus opening up one more avenue for building consumer connect.

2020 has been a year of increased accessibility and reorganisation for the e-pharmacy sector in India. Further growth impetus is expected with some big groups like Tata and Amazon planning major investments in this sector. However, even as competition in the e-pharmacy sector is increasing, there are some challenges that this sector needs to address.

Policy guidelines

At a virtual discussion organised by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) in October 2020, one of the main areas of concern for the panellists was that in the current form, the draft guidelines do not recognise “platforms or marketplaces” that enable sellers to sell drugs online. The regulatory uncertainty puts a cloud over existing players who operate with this business model currently, and completely discourage new investment in that space. It was pointed out that unless the guidelines clearly recognise marketplace platforms, there remains ambiguity on the legality of marketplaces, and it discourages investment and adversely impacts the sector’s growth.

Winning the customers’ trust

Many customers very strongly rely on their friendly neighbourhood pharmacy stores for their medicine requirements – be it prescription medicines or OTC medications for common ailments. Since it is a question of their health, consumers very carefully check the expiry date, whether it matches their doctor’s prescription and whether it is to their satisfaction. Sometimes the pharmacist also suggests a particular OTC medication for minor ailments such as acidity, headache, cough and cold, etc. They also offer advice and guidance on certain health issues.

It is a tough task for e-pharmacies to match the almost personalised touch that neighbourhood pharmacies offer. And with the pandemic, a lot of pharmacies have also started delivering medicines at their customers’ doorsteps. Plus, returning medicines to the nearby pharmacies is a lot easier. This is especially important, when it comes to purchasing medicines on a regular and ongoing basis for long-term or life-long requirements such as diabetes or BP management, asthma, thyroid and so on.

In case of an e-pharmacy, the consumer has to first download the app, register oneself, scan and upload the doctor’s prescription and then place the order, which might be a daunting task, especially for older consumers. Then there is the wait for the medicines to be delivered, which takes from a few hours to a few days. Hence, one has to plan out the order before hand. It becomes critical in case a medicine is required urgently, or if one forgets to replenish the regular medicine stock on time. Neighbourhood pharmacies can make the delivery almost instantly.

Handling prescription medicines

As far as drug abuse/ drug re-use is concerned, sensitive medicines with incentive for reuse for abuse like Narcotic, Schedule X and Schedule H1 are restricted to be processed by e-Pharmacy in e-Pharmacy Draft Rules. In the case of regular medicines/ medicines for chronic diseases are concerned, the key thing for this class of medicines is that the medicine to be used should be decided by a qualified professional, and the consumer has no incentive/ reason to abuse.

To further check the misuse of prescription, electronic surveillance for sensitive medicines can be created in phased manner. Instead of maintaining a digital serial number of Prescriptions, each Pharmacy – whether online or offline – should maintain a unique transaction ID and map the same with a unique ID of patient such as mobile number. Data on such transactions shall be available for digital analytics and inspection of authorities, to check for abuse and misuse of the system. Insisting for prescriptions with a unique ID for digital transactions and having No ID for a physical transaction provides an incentive for abuse with the offline channel and compromises the health of Indians, while being discriminatory to the patients and doctors.

What happens when a consumer has a large number of medicines to buy, which is dispensed only on prescription. Very often, the handwriting on the prescription is not easily decipherable. While the pharmacist at a chemist store who is experienced is able to decode the doctor’s prescription, what happens when one is purchasing the medicines online? Keeping this risk in mind, the consumer might be reluctant to place the order online. The buyer needs peace of mind and assurance while buying medicine as his life and health depends on getting the right medicines at the right time.

Conclusion

While online pharmacy is gathering momentum, it will take some time for this business to stabilise. There is still no clear mandate from the government as to how this will be handled as the subject of medicine is very complex and one needs to carefully frame the laws so that the ride is smooth for both online and offline stores. While the younger generation of customers might find e-pharmacies more convenient, for the older consumers as well as people in smaller towns, the neighbourhood pharmacy will continue to be of prime importance. Transitioning this category of consumers to online pharmacy will not be an easy one. Since there is no face-to-face interaction, e-pharmacies will need a strong customer care division to attend to customer grievances as even one mess-up of an order can result in loss of consumer trust forever.

Only time will tell in which direction is the e-pharmacy sector moving as brick & mortar stores continue to remain strong.

Marketing
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