It all began with a handful of tech start-ups venturing into the pharmacy business and offering better pricing than offline stores while increasing access, lowering transactions and product costs, creating convenience and greater anonymity for consumers. E-pharmacies promised to provide more accessibility to people with limited mobility even in remote areas. Their entry wasn’t well received. It caused serious conflicts between traditional players and chemist associations. There is immense hostility amongst trade unions and associations. The government although chose to be a mere bystander and did nothing but just drafted a policy that is yet to be notified.
And then came the pandemic that changed everything.
People were forced to resort to digital mediums to seek medical care and pharmacy supplies. And that’s when the significance of e-pharmacies was well understood. They became a huge support system to the existing offline players in supplying medicines to the remotest regions during the pandemic. A recent FICCI report states an approximate 2.5x growth (about 8.8 million) in the number of households using ePharmacy services during the COVID-19 lockdown period. Approximately 70 per cent+ consumers cited satisfaction with the initiatives undertaken by ePharmacy platforms. Therefore, it is estimated that the ePharmacy penetration level is likely to reach ~1.4x of its pre-COVID-19 household estimates by FY 25.
Now the game gets even more interesting. Seeing the potential of the market, tech behemoth- Amazon recently entered the market. It started its operation of e-pharmacies in Bangalore and created a furor amongst traditional/offline and e-pharmacy players. There were several letters exchanged between trade unions and associations such as AIOCD and the government bodies. Like the AIOCD, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) representing leading e-pharmacy start-ups also urged the government to finalise the draft e-pharmacy rules and notify them immediately. The trepidation of capitalism gripped the sector.
The storm hadn’t settle yet when Reliance Retail Ventures announced the acquisition of Netmeds, an online pharmacy platform. Reliance’s foray into the pharmacy space makes the marketplace even more intriguing and the possibilities of a radical reorganisation of the sector seem inevitable.
Questions that loom around include:
Will these two giants create a monopoly or will they create a healthy competitive environment?
Healthy competition can drive down cost and companies can translate these benefits to patients. But will these players lower the cost of drug distribution and translate these benefits to patients?
The other concerns are matters of integrity and the safety and security of patients.
“Medicines can not be converted into commodities and sold without proper regulations in place. Amazon always projected itself as a platform to encourage manufacturers to reach potential consumers with products and services. Only on July 23, 2020, the rules for eCommerce got notified under the new Consumer Protection Act 2019. In our country, the sale of medicines is governed under the Drugs & Cosmetics Act 1940, which has been amended from time to time. We spent more than a year framing the Draft Rules within CDSCO for e-pharmacies in India, which was missing in the law. E-Pharmacy Draft Rules for regulating e-pharma companies in India have already been approved by Drug Technical Advisory Board, the highest expert body for Pharmaceutical regulation in India but are still pending for notification for two years. ”, informs Bejon Misra, Founder, Partnership for Safe Medicines and Founder Consumer Online Foundation and International Consumer Policy Expert.
Apart from this, how will these new developments within the sector end the Frankenstein created by trade unions and other associations in this field?
Will the move create more access to medicine for patients or create more opportunities for drug abuse, AMR and attacks on patient data?
Or will it streamline the supply chain, improve efficiency in distribution and create a robust pharmacy system for India?
E-pharmacy player 750 ad Healthcare has plans to create a platform by which they will collaborate with local chemists. Something like Swiggy and Zomato. It will act as a market aggregator for the chemists and pharmacies and will add value to businesses both offline and online.
“Every chemist cannot start his/her own e-commerce platform as you need certain expertise knowledge and investment in starting a project like this. But to become a part of an e-commerce platform with the sole purpose of business and profit is what we can undoubtedly call ‘good business’. Also, individuals who have knowledge about medicines and are certified pharmacists but due to some reason cannot have a tangible business space can start their business through an e-commerce platform like 750ad and make profitable gains”, says the E-commerce/e-pharmacy.”
With so much antipathy for e-pharmacies I am not sure how many chemists may want to associate with a plan like this.
Emotions are ambiguous at present. Having said that, the game certainly gets interesting… and this time for a good reason. The marketplace is all set to get organised and there could be some good opportunities for improved supply chain and logistics, efficient warehousing and most importantly reinvention of the traditional models of drug distribution.
So here we have few ideas that can help pharmacy players-both online and offline to stay ahead of the game keeping the patient at the heart of all things:
Data sciences to ensure patient retention stats and acquiring new customers
This new branch of knowledge has managed to find its way in almost all spectrums of healthcare delivery, find new drug compounds and have new breakthroughs clinical science. According to an AI company MC.ai, data science can assist in finding the right patients that belong to a certain demographic, their clinical history, participation in previous clinical trials and any side effects that may occur. This can help pharmacists to offer better services to those patients, and overall, the cost can be reduced immensely. Moreover, data science can assist pharmacies to retain old customers too. Vivek Tiwari, CEO & Founder, Medikabazaar, explains, “The COVID 19 pandemic has created a new situation where patients now prefer ordering medicines to their homes in view of the risks of stepping out to a nearby chemist. Given the quick turnaround time needed for delivery conventional pharmacies are forced to work with delivery agents like Dunzo to ensure a quick delivery. Until Amazon or Jio can ensure the same hour-same day delivery local pharmacies can acquire customers who would not have visited them in the past.”
Adding to this, Shabnum Khan, Founder, 750ad Healthcare shares, “data science can be helpful to the pharmacies is many ways. For pharmaceutical brands and their internal divisions such as R&D, sales and marketing, the results of advanced analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning can be used in market evaluation, drug discoveries, brand intellect, customer outreach, and customer engagement. This will prove beneficial to pharmacies in creating a strong business environment against mega e-commerce giants. But it is the customer-centric approach and the concept of supporting local pharmacies that will help an e-pharmacy to flourish in the near future.”
Become top prescribers: Pharmacies need to cultivate stronger relationships
Vivek Tiwari, CEO & Founder, Medikabazaar explains, “Most pharmacy prescriptions are driven by CP / GP doctors with over 90per cent of prescriptions still occurring at the counter. Traditional pharmacies are hyper-local falling within the range of neighbourhood doctors. As most Indian patients still prefer to consult doctors in person (outside of online prescriptions), traditional pharmacies have to work to consolidate and secure their regular customer base.”
Improve inventory management to balance supply and demand for medication
Organising inventory takes on particular importance in this case. Not only do patients need the right medicine and dosage, but they also depend on having a steady supply and stock that’s within date. They having a robust inventory management system in place is paramount. Tiwari explains further, “Most of the top-selling drugs in India include diabetic products like insulins and oral anti-diabetics like Metformin and the top 10 brands contribute 43 per cent of the Indian domestic pharma market.” Now, if a proper inventory system is maintained these statistics will clearly identify customer demand and chemists can ensure that supply is made easy. Plus, it can help pharmacies to streamline various processes such as receiving and put-away, pick and pack, order fulfillment and product returns, in short, it creates professional handling of medicines.
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