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IT trends spotted and checked by experts

Independent consultant and specialist in e-health

Hélène Decourteix is an independent consultant. For 10 years she has been working alongside pharmacists, pharmacist associations and laboratories to help them shape their marketing and business strategies...


Pharmacists: The key to connected health

27 Feb, 2017 12:57 pm

Renewing prescriptions online, sending medicine to a patient's home, prescribing health-related connected objects, today's patients except more digital services from their pharmacists. The sector will have to make up its lost ground in this domain in order to keep up with customer demands.

How advanced are pharmacies in terms of their digital transformation?

Pharmacists are clearly lagging behind other retailers and even other areas of the health sector on these issues.They really don't feel affected by the current digital revolution. In France the sector is highly regulated and ruled by codes concerning ethics and public health. These strict regulations also act as barriers to newcomers wishing to enter the sector. Online sales within the sector remain marginal in France: only 360 of the 21,600 pharmacies which exist here are authorised to make sales online.

Why is the pharmacy sector the only one which seems to have escaped the impact of consumers' changing behaviour?

Of course, pharmacies do not distribute their products in the same way as other businesses, plus there is also the key element of advice given by pharmacists. That said, change is inevitable. Patients are becoming ever more mobile, as well as better informed and more connected. With Uber, they simply order and pay for a taxi service. In order to obtain prescription drugs or renew their prescription, however, they sometimes have to go to their local pharmacy several times with the original prescription.

How can this lost ground be made up?

Private initiatives do exist, such as the application mapharmaciemobile ("my mobile pharmacy") created by Pharmagest, or the app designed by the startup Pharmao. They allow patients to scan their prescriptions and select  the pharmacy from which they want to pick up their medicine. However, this type of service is only available with pharmacies who sign up to be clients of the service provider: a tool is needed at national level.

In the US, virtual pharmacies handle prescription renewals from a distance and send the prescribed drugs in packages by post. PillPack  handles such deliveries in 49 states. This service, the cost of which is covered by mutual health funds, implies no additional costs for the patient. It is a valuable asset for those with chronic illnesses and those who care for disabled patients.

What about digitalisation in the pharmacies themselves?

The first step consists in automating the back office. Storage units can contain up to 18,000 references which are renewed twice a day through wholesale deliveries. This means a lot of manual labour for pharmacists.

With a robot, boxes can be delivered straight to the counter - the pharmacist no longer needs to physically go and get them. This essentially leaves the latter to get on with the main focus of the exchange: the patient's health. In-store delivery time is shortened meaning shorter queues in pharmacies. Furthermore, this automation facilitates inventory-related work, enabling stock to be maximized through better management of expiry dates, as cut-price products don't exist.

The next step concerns digital displays. It is not enough to simply set up a screen, a tablet PC or an electronic terminal - these devices need to offer real content so they can be brought to life. Pharmacists need to ask the question: how do I want patients to use these tools and what services will be linked to them? It's a good way of breathing life into a pharmacy and raising awareness about topical health issues - international diabetes screening day, for example - or highlighting a particular field of expertise within the pharmacy's team, such as orthopedics.

A digital wall also enables a pharmacy to extend its display surface area by presenting, for example, the full range of support stockings available, and by suggesting associated products.

And what about the sale of health-related connected objects?

Pharmacists are recognised as having a legitimate status to sell such goods. Although in France companies such as la Fnac and Orange distribute connected objects that improve consumers' "well-being", their sales staff do not have the necessary knowledge to give advice on how to use them in a health-related context. The market, however, is changing. Currently demand is still quite low - it tends to be for products with an easily identifiable use, such as connected weighing scales or a blood sugar level reader.

The next question to ask is: will connected object purchases be covered by social security payments one day? And, if so, and given the plethora of objects available, under what criteria? DMD Santé and Medappcare already offer labels to certain  mobile applications -  amongst the thousands which exist - which request to be advertised as being health applications, so maybe they could adapt their model to connected objects.
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