Future pharmacies: The digital transformation of health retail

18 Nov 2022

Image: © I Viewfinder/Stock.adobe.com

People have been embracing online pharmacies, while brick-and-mortar outlets have benefitted from the uptake of digital tools.

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The Covid-19 pandemic caused many sectors to embrace digital tools at a faster rate, with pharmacies being no exception.

As lockdowns continued and in-person shopping was restricted, many pharmacies were forced to transform parts of their business.

Head of IT for Boots Ireland, Michelle Kearns, told SiliconRepublic.com last year that the pharmacy and retail chain’s website grew “exponentially in users” after the onset of Covid.

“Years of planning for digital solutions which were ‘nice to have but maybe not necessary’ were catapulted into the category of ‘we need them yesterday,’” Kearns said.

The digital transformation of pharmacies shows no sign of slowing down. In October, a study by Juniper Research predicted that the number of e-pharmacy users will reach 1bn globally by 2027. This study said the number of users purchasing medication from online pharmacies in 2022 is at 795m.

In a white paper accompanying the study, Juniper Research said Covid-19 was a key cause of e-pharmacy growth, as many countries scaled down people’s ability to enter retail premises such pharmacies.

“Even those who had not used the service before had to adapt to this new way of getting their medication, as they had no other options,” it said. “This spike in use has led to e-pharmacies continuing to be a preferred method for ordering medication, with the increase in in-person pharmacies being closed down due to costs.”

The growth of online pharmacies has gotten the attention of Amazon, which launched its own virtual pharmacy in 2020 to push into this market. It continued the move into digital healthcare with the acquisition of primary care organisation One Medical earlier this year.

This week, the tech giant announced an expansion to its offering in the form of Amazon Clinic. This service connects customers with virtual care options to treat 20 common health conditions such as allergies, acne and hair loss.

“Our new healthcare store lets customers choose from a network of leading telehealth providers based on their preferences,” Amazon said in a blogpost. “Amazon Clinic is just one of the ways we’re working to empower people to take control of their health by providing access to convenient, affordable care in partnership with trusted providers.”

Transformation of Irish pharmacies

Amid the changing environment, Irish pharmacies have looked to embrace digital tools to improve their service and reach more customers.

In July, a pharmacy in Dublin installed a dispensary robot that can give customers access to products through screen clicks. The goal was to combine traditional services with the feeling of an online store, while freeing up time for staff to focus on other important tasks.

The Drumcondra pharmacy is part of a CarePlus franchise owned by John Keane, who has seven pharmacies nationwide. After the launch of the upgrade, Keane told SiliconRepublic.com that some of his other locations utilised robots to assist their work, but these are usually only behind the scenes.

“The difference about Drumcondra is that the one robot now serves the front of shop and the dispensary, so it’s a completely different user experience, in that you have the option to navigate what you want via a digital screen,” he explained.

‘We saw lots of positive change quickly during the pandemic, hopefully this momentum can sustain and deliver change’

Speaking about the hybrid style pharmacy, Keane said this month that his franchise has “definitely taken the first steps of this journey”, but that there is still a long way to go.

“Innovation is the key to developing improved outcomes in healthcare,” Keane said. “It is easy to imagine the benefits of a completely digitised and integrated pharmacy stack.”

He added that “moving fast and breaking things” has transformed our world, but he doesn’t feel that route is possible in healthcare. He said aspects such as safety, regulation, integration with legacy systems and customer expectations all come to mind as elements that can “hold progress back”.

“Moving and transforming slowly is probably a more honest review of digital transformation in Ireland,” Keane said. “We saw lots of positive change quickly during the pandemic, hopefully this momentum can sustain and deliver change.”

Earlier this year, the HSE also collaborated with five CarePlus pharmacies on a pilot tech scheme to conduct rapid health checks.

Called the Health Elevator, this scheme was part of the national service’s digital health transformation strategy. It aimed to give participants quick check-ups in pharmacies to screen for common health problems, using a combination of health checks, expert advice and digital technology.

The project used software from Full Health Medical, an Irish company that aims to streamline patient care with tools designed by doctors.

Bringing new tech to the UK

Meanwhile, software from another Irish company has been deployed in UK pharmacies this year in a bid to boost digital transformation.

In September, Irish health-tech start-up HasHealth struck a six-figure deal with a UK pharmacy chain to provide an online booking system and make it easier for patients to access healthcare.

This deal saw HasHealth become the online booking provider of clinical services for Rowlands Pharmacy, which has almost 6,000 pharmacies across the UK.

Part of Medihive, formerly known as Webdoctor, HasHealth provides a booking system, waitlist features, medical pre-screen questionnaires and resource management capabilities to improve everyday workflows and patient experiences.

HasHealth head of growth Olan O’Sullivan said at the time that its services can save pharmacists “up to 20 hours” in work per week by automating patient communication and clinical data capture.

“It is crucial to free up pharmacists’ time, allowing them to expand their role in the community while also improving the efficiency of the patient journey,” O’Sullivan said.

On its website, HasHealth noted that click-and-collect services became a lifeline for retail and pharmacies during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Pharmacies, in particular, became centres for community health in light of NHS backlogs,” HasHealth said in a recent blogpost. “Click and collect ensured consumers were still able to safely access basic medicines without overburdening staff-short pharmacies.

“It also meant that in-store wait times and queues were reduced, helping staff and patients to socially distance themselves and remain safe.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic