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Want to set up an online pharmacy? It takes money to make money

There is success to be had from starting your own online pharmacy business – but it's not all plain sailing, says Romil Patel

The world is changing more rapidly than we ever could have imagined, with COVID-19 and the internet structurally disrupting the pharmacy industry.

Increasingly, many pharmacy owners seem to be looking into online opportunities as an additional source of revenue and as a way to reach more customers.

Read more: ‘How I created the award-winning PharmaPlace to help pharmacies embrace their retail offering’

Online pharmacies have been around for a number of years now but have seen a significant rise in patients due to the COVID-19 pandemic, attracting tens of thousands of new users.

According to a presentation I attended, the largest online pharmacy is dispensing over one million items a month. Crucially, over three-quarters of this business comes from repeat prescriptions.

That is the first issue. Only at significant scale will these operations become profitable and they are more suited to repeat medication. With the infrastructure and distribution costs needed to run this type of business, only the very largest players can even hope to survive.

Read more: Scottish online pharmacy acquires US prescription service in 'landmark' deal

With this in mind, it seems nigh on impossible for the average pharmacy to see significant benefit from becoming an online NHS pharmacy.

If a pharmacy owner wants to serve NHS patients better, it may be worth looking into the various mobile apps that help manage their prescription re-ordering and book pharmacy services. This will improve in-store customer experience and ensure retention.

There are various apps that also allow a patient to gain more real-time data on their prescriptions as they are being dispensed. This ensures a patient still comes to see the pharmacist but only when they are due to pick up their medication.

And what about a private online pharmacy?

Creating an online pharmacy to serve the private market is also no simple task. In addition to the pharmacy dispensing service, you would also require online prescribers to issue prescriptions.

The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) has guidance about the requirements for providing pharmacy services over the internet and meeting these takes significant time and money.

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

As there is no face-to-face interaction with customers, there are website functions that are considered a necessity.

Some of the requirements include having an automated identity verification check to ensure a patient is real and checking for duplicate user accounts and orders.

They also include being able to see where patients change answers to online questions to access the medication they want and creating a website flow that requires a consultation before a patient can request a specific treatment.

In addition, they include proactively sharing relevant information about the prescription with a patient’s GP where possible and creating clear communication channels with patients.

You also have to be wary of regulations on how you market medication on the website, as well as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) requirements.

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

Let’s not forget the dispatch and delivery and – tougher still – having customer support for the myriad of issues raised by patients, such as where a customer has ordered on a bank holiday Friday and is wondering why their medication wasn't delivered the next day.

Dealing with all of these aspects in a fast and efficient way requires a well-built and automated website. As I know from personal experience, this can cost anywhere from £75,000 to £150,000 depending on the type of medication you want to sell.

Selling higher-risk medications requires more functional requirements to meet GPhC regulations.

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

You may have to do all of this while running your own bricks-and-mortar pharmacy. In reality, they are two very different types of businesses that require different sets of skills.

After you have built your website, you will then need to attract customers. The biggest websites spend millions every year on advertising online and offline. Online advertising is complicated because well-known search engines do not allow advertising for medication.

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

The key to website traffic is to have great search engine optimisation (SEO). However, this can take between six and nine months to develop and unless you can do it yourself, you will need to employ an agency, at significant cost.

So is it worth it?

Read more: ‘Difficult decision’: Contractor sells pharmacies to grow online business

Clearly, venturing into the NHS prescription model online is rarely worthwhile. On the private side, it is all down to your time and money.

Having built my own site, Farmeci.com, I can say that over one year of tech coding with five developers, six figure costs and lots of bumps on the way, it has been a hard journey.

Only time will tell now if it will be worthwhile.

 

Romil Patel is chief executive officer of PharmaPlace Ltd

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