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‘Community pharmacies must integrate digitally to stay competitive’

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that independent bricks-and-mortar pharmacies must learn and adapt digitally to beat distance-selling says Numark’s Jeremy Meader

The impact of COVID-19 has undoubtedly changed the shape of community pharmacy as we know it. During the COVID-19 pandemic, bricks-and-mortar pharmacies continued to provide a safe, local and personal frontline service for those in need.

But just as they stayed open, so too did national online prescription websites and apps, while the national health crisis put the jostle for patients and prescriptions in the spotlight.

When panic set in, repeat prescription requests soared as patients began stockpiling medicines. The surge in electronic prescription service (EPS) requests, together with an increase in demand for home deliveries, presented a huge opportunity for distance-selling pharmacies to gain a competitive advantage over local pharmacies in a time of unprecedented demand.

Distance-selling pharmacies played a pivotal role in the fight against COVID-19 because they already had the measures and capabilities in place to provide digitally-enabled care. While some high street multiples were also able to meet growing online demand for EPS, thousands of independent community pharmacists faced a digital disadvantage like no other.

At a time when people were asked to stay at home, self-isolate and shield where necessary, online pharmacies inevitably had the competitive edge in terms of the volume they could dispense. That said, even they struggled to meet the demand generated and many refused to take on more patients. However, it’s the learnings that community pharmacies can take from this period that are important.

A healthcare crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time for many already stretched and pressured community pharmacy teams. However, what COVID-19 is telling us, now more than ever, is that for bricks-and-mortar pharmacies hosting a digitally automated online prescription service will go some way to retaining the volume of repeat prescriptions reached during the pandemic.

We already know that the prevalence of distance-selling pharmacies is increasing and the pandemic only confirms their digitally-advantaged proposition moving forwards. Community pharmacies need to retain patient numbers and grow in a digitally integrated way to maintain share in the competitive prescriptions market.

Pharmacies must take strength from the increased levels of patient trust and support they have gained throughout COVID-19, by providing essential face-to-face frontline care services, which online pharmacies aren’t able to compete with.

The ease and convenience of pharmacies are their true advantage in providing patient care, but let’s not forget that pharmacy businesses go beyond repeat prescriptions. It’s about providing accessible, face-to-face, personal healthcare. Many community pharmacies face closure due to increasing operational and financial pressures, so we must encourage patients to stay loyal and support their local community pharmacy wherever possible.

There’s no denying that a true advantage of the digital integration of pharmacies is being able to offer patients the best of both worlds. Multiples offer patients both online and in-person care, which is successful as a tried and tested model.

With over 4,500 members, most of the UK population is not far from a Numark pharmacy. This gives us a geographical advantage over other market-leading online-only services. As advantageous as an online service is, bricks-and-mortar pharmacies will continue to provide the biggest benefit to patients and the NHS.

Getting the balance right is key. A community pharmacy that is able to offer an effective online service as well as the essential in-store services, especially to those who are older and clinically more vulnerable, has the best of both worlds. Pharmacy has proven itself to be an invaluable resource on the frontline of healthcare by providing lifesaving prescription services, support, advice and reassurance to patients and their families when they needed it most.

Jeremy Meader is managing director of pharmacy support group Numark

Support Numark’s campaign for more government investment in community pharmacy here   


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