The image of the pharmacy is rather conservative, would you agree? A place where medicines are dispensed on presentation of a doctor's prescription, where medicines are offered and occasionally available for milder diagnoses. Here, the pharmacist sits in the back room when he has no customers and devotes himself to his concoctions. This is how pharmacies were and are often perceived, but in fact they are already among the pioneers in healthcare when it comes to digitalization.
In this article, we will take a look at the latest developments and possible scenarios of the future of pharmacies as well as the main challenges and the advantages for the industry and not least for the patients themselves.
In the nineties, companies were increasingly focused on the automation of processes in logistics to become more efficient. At that time, pharmacies were the first outpatient service providers to recognize the opportunity to master the frequently recurring challenges in this area with IT support. The focus of digitalization was on stock management and the optimization of ordering processes, but also on billing processes, which until then had been laboriously managed using pharmacy receipts and manually kept lists. The aim was to minimize this high level of administrative effort based on the times, which sealed the first wave of digitalization in pharmacies.1
While internal and operational processes are largely automated today, a further change has begun. People use medical services differently today than they did 15 years ago. They inquire online about medicines, illnesses, doctors, pharmacies and are sometimes even willing to order medicines online. With the latter, a slight reluctance can still be observed, since advice on the medication, its dosage and combination with other medicines is still neglected. However, all these points show the areas in which pharmacies can develop further in the future.
An analysis of search terms related to pharmacies shows that the most common question people ask is which pharmacy is nearest to them. This shows that the online presence of many pharmacies is currently still too weak. Dealing with current health issues publicly and in the language of your customers and thus establishing yourself as a health advisor could be an approach to increasing both your presence and your online expertise. People who are currently avoiding buying medicines online due to justified caution and a lack of expertise could get better help and more advice via digital channels.
Another area currently undergoing radical change is the electronic patient dossier (EPD).
It represents a digital health file that connects patients, doctors and pharmacists and shares information about the state of health with the necessary people. Currently, use of this offer is still optional for doctors and patients, which may lead to slow development in this area. Pharmacies could once again play a pioneering role here and, as health advisors and the first point of contact, open the door to the electronic patient dossier.
Doctors can use the EPD to transmit information about the medication and the prescription itself in digital form, and pharmacists can access it after the patient’s approval. However, transmission simplification is not the only key point, because the rate of non-redeemed prescriptions is around 10 percent..
In the future, digital channels will allow sending reminders to pick up the medication or even to notify that the stock of medication is almost exhausted. Considering that Swiss pharmacies generate an average of 80 to 85 percent of their turnover from prescription drugs, there is great untapped potential here.
The main areas that pharmacies are currently and will be focusing on in the future can be summarized as follows:
These topics require digital skills that need to be acquired and constantly promoted in order to be able to meet the needs of future customers with modern and professional services. Nevertheless, a lot depends on acceptance of these services within the population.
The online sale of medicines has become highly popular in recent years. Same-daydelivery, e-prescribing - the COVID-19 pandemic is believed to have given a further boost in this regard. In 2020, around 30 percent of those under the age of 40 stated that they found online delivery practical and actually used it. It is less surprising, however, that at the same time trust in the Internet as a consulting channel was very low, at just 22%.2 This is one more reason for pharmacies to further strengthen their positioning as health advisors on digital channels.
Such services as e-prescribing help reduce waiting times on site and further improve the customer experience. This concept in particular experienced a strong advance in retail during the pandemic. People can send the e-prescription to the pharmacy as soon as they receive it and will then be notified when it is ready to be picked up. This also improves the ability of the pharmacies to plan.
But far more exciting innovations that look like something out of a science fiction film from the 90s are currently - if not for years - in development. They could radically revolutionize the medication delivery business in the not-so-distant future. The Ingolstadt Clinic is currently testing a research project of Bundeswehr University Munich on medication delivery by drones. 3 Although the project is primarily concerned with the delivery of medicines to hospitals, a similar implementation for private use is also possible. In the future, pharmacies can act as a central player in the delivery of medicines. In particular, emergency medicines can be quickly and easily delivered to people using a fully automated, real-time drone system.
In summary, it is clear that the image of the classic pharmacy presented at the beginning has long been outdated. This industry has long been one of the pioneers when it comes to modernization - or automation - in the health care sector. A role that naturally needs to be preserved due to the fast-moving changes and customer needs. The pharmacy will continue to consolidate its position as a health expert and consultant and have to strive for this especially on digital channels.
Being often the first point of contact, pharmacies are predestined to take on this role and thus maintain close contact with the customers in all health matters. Dominik Saner, a pharmacist with many years of experience, also sees it that way. Read here about his personal opinion on the matter.
On the other hand, the acceptance of services such as the EPD also promotes digitalization among doctors – a stronger networking of all players in the healthcare sector from which everyone benefits.
Cover image by Mika Baumeister. Further images by Diana Polekhina and Marek Lavek.