The rise of the online pharmacy – growing pains and gains
By: Benefits by Design | Tuesday September 12, 2023Updated : Tuesday September 19, 2023
Online pharmacies, sometimes known as digital pharmacies, have been talked about for years now. They’ve been referred to as “disruptors” in the past — but are they?
Although there are many benefits to utilizing an online pharmacy, such as cost savings, increased adherence, and delivery to your home, Canadians aren’t engaging with them as much as has been expected. In this blog, we explore the growing pains and gains these pharmacies have gone through in the last few years and ask ourselves: are Canadians using online pharmacies?
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Online pharmacy usage
The COVID-19 pandemic saw many Canadians spending much more time at home, leading to large increases in the use of services that could be accessed at home, such as videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, and even telemedicine. However, online pharmacies did not see a substantial increase in usage comparable to these other services, despite more Canadians filling prescriptions and amid drug shortages during the pandemic.
Statista reports that just over 26% of Canadians had used an online pharmacy as of 2017. In 2020, the same report shows usage jumping to over 36%, and then dipping back down to 31% in 2022. It is projected to reach just under 35% in 2023. Compared to some of the meteoric rises of other services available at home during the pandemic, these increases seem small. But why?
Canadians not using online pharmacies
Despite access through group coverage and offered discounts, employees are not utilizing online pharmacies as expected. According to the 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey, just 5% of plan members used an online pharmacy to deliver their medications.
This revelation is contrary to plan members’ own stated intentions. In 2021 and 2022, 37% and 46% of plan members indicated they were “likely to order prescription drugs online and have the delivered to them”, respectively.
Online pharmacy growing pains
So, what’s the deal? Nearly 50% of Canadians in 2022 saw the potential value in an online pharmacy, yet usage has fallen since 2020?
There are several likely factors that may play a role here:
- They had options — unlike online videoconferencing platforms or even telemedicine options, Canadians continued to have access to their “normal” during much of the pandemic. Though workers were sent home to telecommute, and many physicians quickly set up virtual appointments and limited in-person services, most pharmacies were (understandably) kept open. This left online pharmacies to continue to compete with brick-and-mortar stores in an already uphill battle to change Canadians’ perceptions of digital prescriptions.
- Habits run deep — people are creatures of habit and changing behaviours doesn’t happen overnight. Adoption of online pharmacies was always going to be an uphill battle and during the tumultuous times of the pandemic, many were seeking a sense of normalcy. Going to the pharmacy to pick up your prescription or going grocery shopping provided that.
- Lack of communication — low uptake remains a problem despite the inclusion of digital pharmacies in virtually every insurer’s benefits offering. So, we must look to how these pharmacies are being communicated to Canadians by insurers and their employers.
Online pharmacy fraud – buyer beware
There are over 35,000 online pharmacies currently operating globally. Of those, only 4% are legally authorized to fill orders in Canada. That means it’s imperative you confirm the legitimacy of your online pharmacy before placing an order.
Risks of not doing so include receiving medication that could be contaminated or poisonous, mislabeled, missing completely, or mistreated during shipping. Or no oversight when it comes to prescription combinations that could be dangerous together. Or the medication could be incorrect for the condition being treated.
Health Canada provides information on how to identify a fraudulent online pharmacy, report any suspicious sites, and verify a safe and legal company.
The future of online pharmacies
“Medication (46%) was the main component of treatment for plan members with chronic conditions and/or chronic pain.” – 2022 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey
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Online pharmacies are projected to continue growing in popularity. Canadians spent over $1,000 per capita on prescriptions in 2022, which means there is a large market to tap into. And according to Statista’s Market Forecast, the percentage of Canadians using an online pharmacy will be over 40% by 2027.
One way for online pharmacies to gain traction is through partnerships with insurance carriers. The pharmacy can join a carrier’s preferred provider network (PPN) and offer its members discounts or preferred pricing. Benefits by Design plan members have access to two PPN online pharmacies through their GreenShield extended health and dental coverage. Both The Health Depot and PocketPills are available options. Plus, using a PPN through employee benefits means you can rest assured the online pharmacy is legitimate and safe.
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Lastly, online pharmacies can help solve the issue of “pharmacy deserts”. Canada is a vast country, and there are people and communities that do not have close access to health care and medication. This is known as a “pharmacy desert”. Online pharmacies can help those affected by this phenomenon and equalize their ability to acquire and adhere to their prescriptions.
An online pharmacy can be a fantastic option for many reasons: They usually have lower dispensing fees and costs; they often offer medication assessment or checks to ensure there are no adverse side effects; they allow caregivers to add their family members; and, they pre-package daily medication doses so it’s easy to know if you’ve taken your medication. With all these great advantages, only time will tell if Canadians will make the switch.