Medicines Only a Click Away
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Medicines Only a Click Away

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Sofía Garduño By Sofía Garduño | Journalist & Industry Analyst - Wed, 02/22/2023 - 16:34

The COVID-19 pandemic boosted the popularity of digital pharmacies. Their efficiency in delivering products at low cost, combined with the increasing penetration of e-commerce, is driving growth in this segment, as reported by the IDB. However, despite their benefits, digital pharmacies can also pose a risk to patients, with data and public health at stake.  


The digital pharmacy market is expected to reach a value of US$211.9 billion by 2027. “These pharmacies are rapidly becoming popular. E-commerce penetration is expected to grow by 36% per year, but e-pharmacies are growing even more quickly,” Jose Antonio Crespo, Co-Founder and CE of Farmalisto, told MBN. This opportunity has also been identified by multiple tech players, including Apple, Microsoft and Amazon, which are already allocating funds to the incursion into the pharmaceutical sector. 


The attractiveness of e-pharmacies is in the benefits that they offer to patients, as they eliminate the burden of visiting a physical pharmacy, thus increasing accessibility. Digital pharmacies also offer cost savings and they help to avoid potential adverse drug interactions or duplications as they can maintain a better record of the medication of a patient. Moreover, compared with traditional pharmacies, their digital counterparts offer more availability since they have more flexible operating hours. 


Big data can also be leveraged by pharmaceutical companies to improve clinical trials, accelerate drug development, target specific populations more efficiently, improve drug delivery and risk management and gain insight into sales performance, among others, as reported by PEX.


“E-commerce in the pharmaceutical industry has started a new age, both in terms of its uses and its applications. Hence, carving out a differentiated place in the digital ecosystem will be vital for every pharma/healthcare company,” wrote Sandra Sánchez-Oldenhage, President and CEO of PharmAdvice, on MBN.


The Other Side of the Coin

Still, e-pharmacies can also pose several risks to patients, who must be careful when choosing a digital pharmacy to avoid receiving bad-quality products. This becomes a challenge as it can be difficult to distinguish between registered online pharmacies and other commercial websites, according to NHS. Also, the customer has the responsibility of consulting a health professional before acquiring any product from an e-pharmacy, as misleading information about medications can be found on some of these platforms.  


Patients’ data can also be at risk if it is not well used and protected. Pharmacies can collect information that patients expect will remain private, including names, addresses, patient-counseling records, claims and insurance information, among others. “An e-pharmacy could capture all this data at much lower cost and with more efficiency than traditional pharmacies,” said Amit Pratap, Principal Analyst at Beroe Inc. 


Although the intention of using data might be to improve the overall patient experience, in the wrong hands, data can be used for harmful purposes. Inadequate regulation increases these risks. Most countries require e-pharmacies to be licensed, to verify the identity of customers, to ensure the authenticity of products and to have systems in place to detect and prevent fraud and abuse. In Mexico, COFEPRIS oversees the production, distribution and sale of pharmaceutical products, including those sold through e-pharmacies. These players must comply with the same regulations as physical stores and are required to adhere to data protection. Furthermore, the General Health Law, the Federal Law of Personal Data Protection, NOM-004, 024 and 035 address digital health. “Mexico has a solid legal framework for the observance and protection of our personal data. It is considered a human right within articles 6 and 16 of the Constitution. In addition, the country has signed several international treaties for good practices in biology and medicine,” said Alejandro Luna, Partner at Olivares, at MHS 2022 ECHO.


However, there are still areas of opportunity that must be addressed. “One gray area that the whole industry needs to work on is digital prescriptions. Some of these prescriptions are accepted by COFEPRIS but we need a standard for the whole industry,” said Crespo. “A standard would make it simpler for the industry to operate and would give COFEPRIS a better perspective of what is happening in the market to better control pharmaceuticals.”


Regulation must be a reliable tool to ensure e-pharmacies are secure platforms for patients. By strengthening the legal framework, the e-pharmacies sector can maintain and increase its growth while public health is protected. “Regulations are needed, which reflect on all the actors in the health segment so that they can climb to the next level,” said Luiz Reis, Director of Growth for Latin America at Bionexo. 

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