Buying medicines has got a lot easier, thanks to the advent of e-pharmacies. Now medicines are just a click or touch away. This not only saves patients the time they would otherwise spend standing in queues, but also the time and effort involved in going from one pharmacy to another to get the prescribed brand or drug in case the same isn’t available in the nearby pharmacy.
E-pharmacies have changed the way the drug-dispensing industry works in the country, for two reasons.
Stiff competition from e-pharmacies has led brick- and-mortar pharmacies to offer services such as home delivery at no additional cost. Also, many physical pharmacies offer to procure drugs or brands on demand, in order to woo and retain customers. This is a significant change from the earlier times.
Further, the government’s attempt to get doctors to prescribe the generic name of drugs instead of just drug brands will also go a long way in empowering customers and give more power to customers.
E-pharmacies typically offer discounts of 10-40 per cent. This varies across products. Many pharmacies offer lower discounts on nutritional products and higher ones for prescription drugs. This has not just helped customers who buy through e-pharmacies save on their medical bills but has also had a positive rub-off on conventional pharmacies, too. For instance, several traditional pharmacies have now started offering price discounts to retain customers.
While e-pharmacies score over brick-and-mortar pharmacies on convenience and pricing, the time taken to deliver is still a challenge. Even though e-pharmacy start-ups are trying to solve this, logistical constraints prevail. If you need to buy a medicine immediately, walking into a pharmacy nearby may be the best option. However, for those who are under regular medication and can plan their purchases ahead, online pharmacies may offer a good bargain.
There are three e-pharmacy models that are currently in vogue.
The first model is online-only stores. All you need to do is log into the portal and place an order for the medicine you need. The same is delivered home by the e-pharmacy. Prominent players who currently operate in this segment include Netmeds, 1mg, mChemist, Medlife and PharmEasy.
In the second model, players who have had a strong presence in the brick-and-mortar space have spread their wings into the online business as part of their expansion strategy, to cater to a larger number of customers. MedPlus, for instance, is encouraging online booking by offering discounts to customers who order medicines through their portal. For instance, the average discount on prescription drugs when you visit a physical store is 10 per cent (for purchases of up to ₹1,000). However, if you order online, you can get up to 20 per cent discount on the maximum price.
Finally, there are a few portals that serve as channelising partners. Vpharmacist, for instance, helps you choose the medicines you require and place an order online. The order is then passed on to a pharmacist located close to the customer’s home. The medicines are delivered home and the customer can make the payment upon delivery.
Amidst protests by traditional chemists, who have been threatened by the strong growth in the e-pharmacy business, the Centre in September last year announced a draft policy for regulating online pharmacies, to provide a level playing field.
The draft policy mandates registration with the Central Licensing Authority (CLA) to operate an e-pharmacy, without which, no individual or company can distribute, sell, stock or exhibit drugs. There are also regulations regarding prohibition to sell drugs categorised as narcotic and psychotropic drug, confidentiality of patient information, and furnishing of information such as that on owners/directors /partners and logistics providers.
Late last year, two public-interest litigations were filed in the Madras and New Delhi High Courts, the hearing of which is currently on. The Centre, in a response to an observation by the court in Delhi, has indicated the roll-out of a e-pharmacy project soon, based on the draft guidelines released in September 2018. Once done, this will go a long way in making it fool-proof not just for customers, but also ensure that interests of both online and offline pharmacies are well taken care of.
The writer is an independent financial consultant