The pharmacy sector and coronavirus: Tips for now and the future

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I’m taking a look, industry by industry, at how coronavirus is impacting business and what we can do in the eCommerce innovation sector to help in these tough times. We already looked at fashion retailers in our last article and now we’ll take a look at the polar opposite and talk about how we can help pharmacy.

I say “polar opposite” because fashion retailers are being forced to close brick-and-mortar stores and are reacting by innovating online to offset the negative impact. Pharmacy, on the other hand, is classed as being positively impacted by the current health crisis and is one of the few vital services to stay open in the lockdowns in France, Italy, Spain, and China. However, it struggles to innovate online. 

Source: Dentsu Aegis Network

We’ve learned that pharmacy is vital to life but that we in eCommerce have failed to meet the specific challenges of the sector and build a robust alternative to brick-and-mortar pharmacies. Here are the reasons why those challenges are tough, how it impacts the current situation, where innovation is taking place, and how we need to do better in future to support the pharmacy industry that has proven itself to be crucial in these pressing times.

Challenges to eCommerce innovation in pharmacy

Regulation is the main obstacle to innovation in the pharmacy sector. Over-the-counter medicines are freely available to buy but prescription drugs obviously require strict procedures, certification, and process checks. Some states across the US have ATM-style dispensers for prescription medicines that work on a ‘code and pin’ system, but not all states will allow the human intermediary to be cut out of the process. In 2018, New York dispensers were closed down after complaints by the Pharmacy Board and a deeper discussion on how they “appear to present statutory and regulatory challenges.”

Right now we have even greater challenges. The huge demand for medicines due to the coronavirus has seen what are described as “massive shortages” in rural pharmacies in Australia. Drug suppliers report that orders are currently at 30% to 40% above what anyone predicted when the virus threat first became serious. A similar situation has happened in the UK where the National Pharmacy Association has sent an open letter to the public to ask people to stop stockpiling and “act in the interests of the whole community”. High street pharmacies describe the shelves as decimated.

And herein lies the heart of the problem… In the pharmacy industry, there is not a strong enough alternative to in-store service. It is a 1T USD industry of which only 1% of that revenue figure is generated online. Regulation around medicines has been the main factor but demographics also play a part. Over-75s are the age group that most need prescriptions but only 42% own a smartphone and 8% fill prescriptions online. 

In normal times, this is a problem for the growth of pharmacy in the eCommerce sector. In the current crisis, it creates a dangerous paradox. Those people in the elder age group are most vulnerable to the virus and should stay at home, and yet they have to leave the house and risk their health to get medicines.

 > Pharmacy Insights: Read more in our in-depth industry and innovation report 
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Digital solutions to help during the coronavirus   

It’s too late for pharmacies to digitize. The crisis is taking place right now and our focus must be entirely on supporting the supply chain (which has been hit by a lack of production in China, where most medicines are made) as best we can. However, there are a few interesting cases of digital solutions that may inspire and support pharmacists right now:

Grassroots activism 

Let’s call this out first. The crisis caused by COVID-19 has seen a great deal of turmoil but it also brings out the best in some people. One of the simplest and most effective ways to protect and help both the pharmacy industry and elderly people has been the emergence of groups like Shopping Angels, where young people create grassroots volunteer movements on social media and shop for older people. Right now, the greatest innovation is still common human kindness.

Diversification from food delivery

In China, during the crisis, many food delivery applications were able to quickly and easily diversify their offerings to include essential products like over-the-counter medicines. 

Dispensary machines offer a safe, fast option

As discussed, ATM-style prescription medication dispensaries are not universally accepted but the coronavirus crisis will surely accelerate sensible changes to the law to make it easier for people to get hold of drugs without human interaction. Companies such as MedAvail already offer “a complete remote pharmacy solution to provide products and services when and where customers need them”.

Reliable, trustworthy information direct to customers

There is a maelstrom of information about the coronavirus. It’s hard to separate the fact from the fiction, with genuine information that can protect public health mixed with rumor, disinformation, and hoaxes. If your pharmacy has a loyalty program, such as Boots the chemist or many other large chains, it is an ideal way to inform customers of product stock levels and vital information that could save them a trip outside or let them know that medicines are in stock. Asthma suffers, in particular, are worried about a lack of basic inhalers as stock runs low. Loyalty programs are often seen as reward schemes for regular customers; in the current crisis, they also become a trusted source of information straight from the pharmacy to the customer.

> Learn more about loyalty programs from Open Loyalty

Leverage existing eCommerce solutions

There are not a great deal of established prescription medicine eCommerce solutions but some are already functioning. Consumers visiting MedImpact’s America’s Pharmacy website can seamlessly purchase prescription medications for home delivery or in-store pickup.

Supporting pharmacy now and post-corona

The coronavirus has shown us how vital to life the pharmacy industry actually is. It’s only in times of extreme crisis that we truly recognize the amazing work they do. The idea that the crisis has had a “positive impact” is a debatable wording: the pharmacy sector has seen a huge spike in demand but vulnerabilities have been exposed in the supply chain, the online and non-contact alternatives to traditional services, and the ways in which the core users (the elderly) are able to engage. 

This crisis has taught us that we need a more robust eCommerce sector for pharmacies to avoid the same situation if the world ever finds itself in similar circumstances again. 

IT is here to help: Free consultation for any pharmacy innovation

It may be too late to build an entire new eCommerce ecosystem around pharmacy to tackle the coronavirus, but we want to start that innovation today. Inspired by those grassroots initiatives, we have started ‘IT is here to help’, which aims to give free business consultancy and support to any company struggling in this time, as well as to any business that is taking on the challenges we face in order to protect and serve the public.

We are offering free time with our Product Design team for any qualifying business but we would particularly like to hear from anyone who has an idea for any digital solution to help ease the strain on pharmacies right now, especially in ways that protect the elderly. Contact us at to discuss your idea.

Our aim at Divante is to find positive solutions to the real problems we face. We have successfully implemented innovative solutions for huge medical coverage providers and international pharmacy chains. Our work to further bolster the pharmacy industry starts here and now, today.

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Published March 18, 2020