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'Difficult' to make money from online pharmacy, ex-GPhC chair suggests

The pharmacy regulator’s former chair has raised concerns about whether a purely online pharmacy model is sustainable, suggesting it is “difficult” to make money.

Former chair of the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) Nigel Clarke last week said that whether an “online only” model of pharmacy is “actually sustainable” is an “interesting question”.

He told delegates at a Westminster Health Forum conference on Tuesday (March 28) that “if you talk to anybody in the City of London, there is considerable scepticism about whether purely online pharmacy will ever be profitable”.

Read more: Almost a third of online pharmacies failing to meet standards, warns GPhC

Mr Clarke, who is also co-chair of the UK commission on pharmacy professional leadership, added that there is “some justification” for online pharmacy when people “are simply having repeat medicines delivered”.

But “nevertheless it’s one to think about”, he said.


“Quite difficult to make money”


Speaking to C+D after the conference, Mr Clarke said there are “a combination of factors” affecting the sustainability of the model.

“I suspect it’s quite difficult to make money out of online pharmacy”, he said. “If you look at the records, profitability in online pharmacy is difficult to achieve.”

Read more: Scottish online pharmacy secures £10m cash injection to expand across UK


He told C+D that the push to introduce more pharmacy services rather than “just purely dispensing medicines” – and any resulting changes to the contract – are “going to be much more difficult to do online for obvious reasons”.


And he added that a post-COVID-19 increase in people presenting in pharmacies as a first port of call “much more than they used to”, alongside moves to encourage the public to do so, is also “a challenge for online pharmacies”. 


Read more: Online pharmacies: Coroner flags ‘lack of integrated records’ after patient ‘overdose’


“It’s one thing if you’re on a repeat prescription and want it delivered and that’s it,” Mr Clarke said.


But those on an “acute prescription” are “more likely” to go to their local pharmacy because they “want to have a word with the pharmacist” when picking it up, he added.


And it is presumptuous to assume that only the elderly would still want a face-to-face relationship with community pharmacies, he told C+D.


“Tough” backdrop


Mr Clarke added that this comes “against the backdrop of things being very tough in community pharmacy at the moment”.

“Most community pharmacists are finding life hard,” he told C+D.

Read more: Online pharmacies ‘disrupting the market’, wholesalers told


He added that while a purely online model has its challenges, a hybrid model with both an online and bricks-and-mortar presence is a “strong possibility”.


“There’s every reason to have an online presence but if you’re going to run a business with growth…you’re going to have to embrace wider services that either people will pay for by themselves or will become part of the contract,” he said.


"Patient expectation must be met”


Speaking at the pharmacy conference last week, Mr Clarke stressed that patients’ needs must be at the heart of any online pharmacy model.

“Critically important here is that patient expectation needs to be met”, he told delegates, adding that many people will engage with NHS services online but still “need the comfort of being able to talk to the pharmacist if an issue has arisen”.

Read more: EPS now 'default' as almost 1bn items dispensed electronically in 2021/22


“As a regulator, there were undoubtedly risks that are part of the online service of pharmacy,” he said.


“Frankly you learn as you go along how best to mitigate them, how best to actually ensure that the risks are properly managed…but much will be led by what patients feel they need,” he added. 


Read more: Lloydsdirect gains sustainability certification for 'goals outside of profit'


It comes as the GPhC last month revealed that almost a third of online pharmacies are not currently meeting its standards.

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