Pharmacy services to surge on back of digital scripts

From a standing start, Australia’s pharmacists have dispensed 6.5 million electronic prescriptions since May 2020. And that’s unleashed patient demand for even more health services.

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Australia’s first ever electronic prescription was filled on 6 May 2020. Behind the scenes, pharmacists were working hard – and investing heavily – to make this delivery option a reality for their patients.

It was a phenomenal effort, says Trent Twomey, President of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.

“Pharmacies had to make more changes to both their clinical and administrative workflows than any other group involved in the government’s rollout, including GP practices,” Twomey says.

“Their owners had to buy new clinical software or make significant changes to the software they had, and add IT infrastructure like QR code scanners, monitors and dispensing workstations. Staffing requirements were also affected, and all of this had to be organised in a highly unpredictable COVID-19 landscape.”

Pharmacists also spent time helping patients make the transition to electronic prescriptions – though, as Twomey points out, education is one of the things pharmacies do particularly well.

“They will always support what is best for their patients,” Twomey says. “In this case, that meant ensuring patients had access to the medicines they needed, however those were prescribed.”

Pharmacy trust at a high

According to the new 2021 NAB Pharmacy Survey, that hard work has paid off. Almost one in five Australian consumers – 19 per cent – used an electronic prescription over the past 12 months, reporting high levels of satisfaction.

That comes as trust in the profession is at a high: pharmacists rank in the top three most trusted professionals in Australia, according to the survey, ahead of police, schoolteachers, dentists and judges.

They are widely acknowledged as highly trained clinicians, with one in three Australians considering them their most important health provider. Pharmacists are also among the most accessible health professionals in the community, with Australians on average visiting a pharmacy 18 times a year.

Looking to new business models

Certainly, the pandemic triggered a period of unprecedented demand for pharmacy products. Australian wholesalers distributed more than 70 million PBS medicines during March and April 2020 – a 70 per cent increase on the same period last year, and a greater volume than at any other time in Australia’s history.

By April 2021, 6.5 million original and repeat prescriptions had been dispensed electronically, with community pharmacies filling almost 3.5 million of them.

Twomey believes the new technology has encouraged pharmacists and their patients to review how they work together.

“There are opportunities now to blend traditional face-to-face with digital interactions,” he says. “We expect to see a slow shift towards digital, which will mean less foot traffic in the pharmacy, and this is bound to drive a change in business models. However, we’re finding that many people still prefer a more personal interaction.”

He hopes that pharmacists will be able to continue strengthening these relationships by offering more of the services they have the potential to provide.

“For example, we’d like to see them get the go-ahead to provide the full range of vaccinations rather than just influenza and COVID-19,” he says.

Patients seeking more services

According to the 2021 NAB Pharmacy Survey, demand from Australians for more pharmacy services is certainly there.

It found that many respondents would prefer to see a pharmacist or nurse at a pharmacy for their flu vaccinations (28 per cent); health screening tests (19 per cent); and COVID-19 vaccinations (19 per cent). There was also a significant group who said they didn’t mind where they received care such as a flu or COVID vaccination (27 per cent) and travel health (22 per cent).

Pharmacists in Australia are more limited in terms of the services they can provide compared with some other countries and, once again, the survey suggests that consumers would be happy for them to do more. For example, around two in three (67 per cent) believe pharmacists should be authorised to provide emergency dispensing of medicines and 66 per cent think they should be able to prescribe the contraceptive pill on an ongoing basis.

According to the Pharmacy Guild, pharmacies are increasingly recognising that, in order to remain viable, they must derive revenues from a wider array of funding sources, both public and private.

Pharmacies are health providers that operate in a retailing environment and the Pharmacy Guild predicts that individual pharmacies will increasingly seek to differentiate themselves by specialising in niches where there is a community need and where they are in a position to use their competitive advantages to meet that need.

Levelling the playing field for community pharmacies

Looking beyond electronic prescriptions, technology could help community pharmacists compete with larger chains, Twomey says.

“For example, the myPharmacy Link app allows patients to order and pay for their medications online,” he says.

“Pharmacists can also use the app to provide dose and refill reminders, alerts, script history and other information like test results. That’s a digital opportunity to strengthen relationships, build loyalty and increase footfall. Our members can also link to the free Pharmacy Click and Collect network, which allows patients to place their orders online then collect them whenever it’s convenient.”

The GuildDigital website reports that larger chains are moving to same-day delivery, via various means, rather than mailing out orders from a central warehouse. Many community pharmacies already offer a similar same-day delivery service by having a staff member drop off prescriptions and purchases.

Twomey believes community pharmacies have some unique advantages that will see them compete successfully against chain pharmacies.

“There will always be disruptors and larger competitors,” he says, “but community pharmacies have the advantage of a long, strong and valued relationship with their communities. We’re more confident than ever that community pharmacies are up to the challenges that lie ahead.”