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The rise of the online pharmacy – growing pains and gains 

By: Benefits by Design | Tuesday September 12, 2023

Updated : 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? 

Why Your Next Prescription Should be Filled by an Online Digital Pharmacy ( 

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. 

plan members who are likely to order prescription drugs online and them delivered:
2021 - 37%
2022 - 46%
Source: Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey 2022

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: 

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 

Pharmacogenetic testing – what is it and what are the advantages?

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. 

Benefits by Design’s Embedded Enhancements & Value-Added Benefits ( 

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. 

Learn more about Benefits by Design’s preferred pharmacy network

Download the Infosheet: Preferred Pharmacy Arrangement Info Sheet (PDF: 158KB)