Opportunities and Obstacles for Online Pharmacies in the UK

Online Pharmacies in the UK

More and more businesses are transitioning to a digital platform, using the power of technology to improve the products and services offered and delivered to consumers. Most industries impacted most prevalently by the tech boom have included retail businesses, but the healthcare sector is beginning its catch-up. The most recent shift toward a more digitally focused consumer experience is pharmacy operations. Many patients are demanding faster, more efficient tracking and delivering of their prescription medications from pharmacies without a physical location. While some organisations have seen this transformation as an opportunity for improving patient care, others cite risks and challenges in creating a sustainable digital pharmacy experience for the majority of patients.

Opportunities in Healthcare

In the UK, online pharmacies are also known as distance selling pharmacies, and they have been in operation albeit on a small scale since 1999. As of 2015, just under 500 online pharmacies existing, most of which were connected to a physical location provider for ease of service. Most online pharmacies in the UK today create a more streamlined process for patients to receive prescription medications quickly. Doctors simply fill a prescription through the pharmacy platform, and patients have the opportunity to either pick it up at an actual location or have it delivered to their door. The idea behind digital platforms for prescriptions relies heavily on the retailer to consumer model like technology giant Amazon. Individuals want quick service from the comfort and convenience of their home, particularly those managing chronic conditions that hinder their ability to get out to a physical pharmacy location.

The most significant opportunity in online pharmacy providers is the improved efficiency in relaying prescription data to the patient, his or her GP, and the pharmacy. This type of system offers more transparency in medication management when it is functioning properly. It also provides a more cost-effective way for individuals to manage their care from home. Patients also have an increased choice in their provider, as well as greater accessibility and privacy as it relates to their healthcare. Many technology companies have honed in on the potential advantages of the prescription market, but the opportunities are only beneficial to patients when certain challenges are successfully overcome.

Obstacles to Success

Distance selling pharmacies are becoming more popular among patients in the UK, but there are serious obstacles to the success of these platforms for the long term. A group of legal experts in medical negligence claims explains that the improved access to pharmacy services, the greater choice among lower-cost prescriptions, and increased convenience for the patient all point to a promising future. However, prescription care innovation cannot be successful without a clear focus on safety and quality of the care being provided. In the current environment, several issues are in play with online pharmacies that have led to grave concerns over patient safety and treatment management.

A recent report by the Care Quality Commission – the organisation tasked with inspecting health providers throughout the UK – shed light on these challenges in detail. As of April 2018, nearly half of the online pharmacies operating in the country were deemed unsafe for a variety of reasons, most of which related back to a lower quality of care provided to patients. The most recent report is an improvement over 2017 numbers which showed 86% of digital pharmacies failed to meet health regulation standards. However, the increase in safe pharmacies is still lacking compared to physical pharmacy locations according to the CQC.

A significant problem in the inspection reports of many online pharmacies mentions the reality of the opioid crisis, impacting many adults throughout the UK. The over-prescription of opioids runs more rampant among online providers than conventional healthcare professionals, partly due to the lack of checks in place to ensure safety for patients. The increased volume of painkillers prescribed through online pharmacies is combined with other glaring issues, like failing to transmit prescription details back to a patient’s GP and having no safeguards in place to ensure quality control for delivered medications.

Without viable strategies for correcting these safety issues for all patients utilizing online pharmacies, it is difficult to tell if digital providers will remain an option looking ahead. The hope is with ongoing inspection, continually improving safety numbers, and a combined effort to communicate effectively between traditional and new providers, online pharmacies in the UK will be a sustainable option for patients in managing their healthcare.