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Safety first: Medino’s superintendent on running an online pharmacy

Alessandro Grenci discusses the importance of safety in the digital age and why he thinks the GPhC’s approach to online pharmacy is “fair”

It seems that Alessandro Grenci was destined to become a pharmacist. Speaking to C+D over a video call, he recalls that he had “always wanted to be some sort of scientist”, studying chemistry at high school before pivoting to pharmaceutical science at university so he could fulfil his "dedication to help" people alongside a passion for medical science.

Earlier this year, he became superintendent pharmacist at the online operator Medino. Landing the role marks one of the “greatest moments” of his career to date after early knockbacks in his native Italy, where he struggled to find work after graduating. As he puts it, landing a job as a pharmacist where he grew up could be “tough – especially if you don’t know anybody” already working in the sector.

But after relocating to the UK in 2016, it seems he’s finally found his dream role at Medino following positions at Lloydspharmacy and working as a locum. “It's an honour to be part of an amazing team,” he tells C+D enthusiastically.

 

Difficult to make money?

 

Depending on who you ask, it’s either an exciting or a risky time to join the world of online pharmacy. While the model has fervent cheerleaders, there are sceptics such as former General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) chair Nigel Clarke, who in April suggested that it is “difficult” to make money from a purely digital business.

Read more: Thinking outside the box: The pharmacist on a public health mission

But Mr Grenci is decidedly unruffled when presented with these comments, even-handedly pointing to the steady growth in revenue Medino has seen in recent years despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the financial crisis. “Obviously, we expect these figures to go a bit down this year,” he concedes. “But we are still a profitable business”.

So what is Medino? Mr Grenci describes the company as a digital retailer of health and beauty products with an aim to “bring the high street pharmacy online”, saving people time. Speed seems a particular focus for the business, with Mr Grenci claiming it is “probably” 24 hours faster than another high street pharmacy – which he does not name – that also operates online. “We offer probably the [fastest] delivery among the other online pharmacies and this has been verified and tested,” he says.

 

Putting safety front and centre

 

While online pharmacy is a growing sector in Great Britain, with around 700 currently operating, there have been questions raised about its safety. Online outlets are attracting greater scrutiny from the GPhC, with the regulator warning in March that almost a third were failing to meet its standards. And in 2021, it suggested bringing in differentiated fees to cover the “increased regulation for online pharmacies”.

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

This seems like a hard line to take. But Mr Grenci seems unfazed by the GPhC’s stringent approach. “As a team, we're not we're not concerned because we comply with all regulations and guidelines,” he says, citing Medino's strict  “safety measures”. "Our standard operating procedures (SOPs) are up to date. The job is done without interruptions and [in] the safest way possible,” he adds.

In fact, he suggests Medino is “even safer than high street pharmacy” because of how “software-centric” it is. This software is used to ask a number of specific and tailored questions for each product the website offers and the answers to these questions are used to identify people who are trying to exploit the system, especially when it comes to general sale list medicines (GSLs) or pharmacy (P) medicine sales.

In addition, he says the company stores a “certain amount of [customers' order] history”, helping to prevent people from misusing or abusing any kind of medication – especially codeine products, which he points out “unfortunately are among the most misused and abused medication in the pharmacy environment”.

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

However, Mr Grenci agrees it is fair for the GPhC to be robust in its approach to regulating online pharmacies. “I understand the agencies and the public have trust issues [with] online pharmacy, because it’s not a face-to-face service [and] doesn’t often have a physical shop on the high street,” he notes. “It’s more hidden in warehouses, [which] are far from the public.” While he is not advocating for the regulator to be “tougher” on online pharmacies, he thinks it’s probably “fair that a new approach is set and created for this type of business”, such as modifying premises inspections or risk assessments.

The action so far, he believes, is “a fair measure because of the continuously increasing numbers of online pharmacies that are popping [up]”. It’s important for the regulator “not to set limits” exactly, he says, but to make sure it is “looking out for public safety”.

Mr Grenci says Medino is “continuously improving [its] approach to healthcare”. Plans to increase the range of products available on its digital platform are also in the pipeline, helping the company to move away from “dispensing prescriptions” and towards focusing on the advice it gives and the products it offers.

Meanwhile, Mr Grenci is looking to the future himself and is in the process of completing an independent prescribing course, backed by protected study time from Medino. “It’s all coming together,” he says.

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