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Online pharmacies are the future - right?

Malcolm E. Brown explores why online pharmacies have become increasingly popular, noting that they lack the “personal touch” of brick-and-mortar pharmacies.

As the world of healthcare keeps changing, pharmacies are also shifting. Online pharmacies are becoming more popular alongside brick-and-mortar ones. This brings a mixture of opportunities and challenges, especially when serving specific patient groups and dealing with tricky regulations.

A big potential (non-NHS) market for online pharmacies is patients needing compliance aids such as dosettes. Those patients often struggle to get these services in person because traditional pharmacies are stretched to their limits. Online providers like PillTime step in to help, making sure those patients get their medications organised and on time. But whether this is profitable is still up in the air. For example, the biggest provider online, Pharmacy2U, reported significantly reduced profits recently.

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Online pharmacies are not just about convenience. I suspect there is a private patient market willing to pay for better service. However, this raises issues around governance, like preventing over-ordering of medications and ensuring smooth cooperation with NHS partners. Patient care must continue to be the priority of all pharmacists.

One area where online pharmacies might have the edge is providing discreet access to medications for conditions some people find embarrassing to discuss in person. This includes treatments for conditions like erectile dysfunction. The online setting offers a level of privacy and convenience that traditional pharmacies struggle to match. This could make serious money for online services, attracting customers who prefer the anonymity of online transactions.

Read more: A male chauvinist (reformed) and women pharmacists

But there are key differences between online and brick-and-mortar pharmacies. Online pharmacies offer convenience, especially for those in remote areas and/or disabled, but they may lack the personal touch and immediate support of brick-and-mortar pharmacies. Personal interaction is crucial for many patients, especially older adults who digital technology may mystify–or even terrify.

Amazon’s entry into the pharmacy market is probably a game-changer. With its gargantuan resources and tech expertise, Amazon could revolutionise how we get our medications. Amazon’s impact on traditional retail sectors, like bookstores, raises questions about the future of brick-and-mortar pharmacies. Are they next on the chopping block? In the USA, Amazon has launched Amazon Pharmacy, allowing customers to order prescription medications for home delivery. This service integrates with Amazon Prime, offering discounts and two-day delivery, making it a formidable competitor in the pharmacy market.

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Despite the perks, there are risks with relying more on online pharmacies. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt warns that adolescents are glued to screens, so skip real-world personal interactions. That hurts their social skills and mental health including increased risk of self-harm and suicide; adolescents must meet real flesh-and-blood people in a traditional pharmacy. Also, the digital trail left by online transactions raises privacy concerns.

Internationally, online pharmacies present both opportunities and challenges. Differences in medication prices and availability across countries could be a goldmine for savvy pharmacists. But navigating the legal and regulatory hurdles is crucial to avoid getting into trouble.

The big question is whether online pharmacies are overestimating demand. Silicon Valley behemoths may be hyping up the potential. Traditional pharmacies have been around for centuries, and people love what they know. The jury is still out on whether online pharmacies will completely take over.

The future is probably a mixture of online and bricks-and-mortar pharmacies. Each has strengths, catering to different needs and preferences. The tech-savvy digital natives may prefer online but those born before about the 1950s may prefer a friendly flesh-and-blood face at their local pharmacy.

Read more: From crisis to evolution: Community pharmacy’s transformation

Interestingly, online pharmacies might have seen higher profits had the pandemic continued, as more people would have turned to online services out of necessity. However, with the return to normalcy, the initial surge in online pharmacy use might taper off.

So, is online the future? Maybe. But for now, traditional pharmacies are not going anywhere. They both have roles to play and finding the right balance will be key. As this pharmaceutical story unfolds, I look forward to witnessing how these two pharmacy models intertwine and influence our collective future.

Dr Malcolm E. Brown is a retired community, hospital and industrial pharmacist, and is a sociologist and honorary careers mentor at the University of East Anglia.

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