Online Drugstores Lack Human Touch

Successful online pharmacies will move beyond improving infrastructure to providing high-level services that will enable patients to comply with drug therapies, according to Forrester Research. But unless they can provide a pharmacist or doctor, Greenfield Online says some consumers may remain skeptical.

According to Forrester, pharmacy sites will use patient compliance programs to add $1.3 billion to their top lines by 2004. Online pharmacies will proliferate as they specialize to maximize penetration and establish partnerships to master markets.

Forrester’s report “The ePharmacy Opportunity,” found the online demand for prescription drugs is growing rapidly, but online pharmacy leaders are struggling with underdeveloped infrastructures. One reason for this is that although many insurers have relatively open retail pharmacy networks, most limit patients to a single mail-service provider to concentrate bulk-buying discounts. Additionally, delivery delays, often increased by time required to verify first-time and renewal scripts, encourage many patients to fill prescriptions with their offline pharmacies instead of buying them online. Finally, a fragmented regulatory system continues to cost online pharmacies resources for complying with divergent state regulations.

“Forrester believes that online pharmacies will rise to the challenge of selling prescription drugs online — ringing up $15 billion in sales in 2004,” said Forrester analyst Elizabeth Boehm. “To meet growing demand and capture market share, ePharmacies will build a strong foundation to deliver products and leverage compliance services that boost revenues.”

Forrester expects online pharmacies to forge stronger ties with insurance partners by integrating with insurer systems to provide the same real-time copay information that offline stores provide. Online pharmacies will also help drive electronic prescription adoption by creating a standard interface, as well as lobbying for standards across state regulations, according to Forrester.

Online pharmacies will also have to focus on compliance programs that expand the industry. Nearly half of all patients fail to take their medication as prescribed by their doctors, and unfilled scripts cost pharmacies about $25 billion annually in lost sales. Forrester projects that ePharmacy-based interactive compliance programs will add $1.3 billion in incremental drug sales by 2004. In addition to boosting sales, driving compliance will improve patient care and enhance communication with physicians.

Most Popular Items Purchased
At Online Drugstores/Pharmacies
Type of Product Percent
OTC Drugs 63%
Personal Care 62%
Beauty 56%
Prescription Drugs 49%
Nutrition & Wellness 46%
Home & Family 31%
Source: Greenfield Online

To capitalize on the opportunity that compliance programs offer, online pharmacies must take advantage of the Internet’s interactivity to strengthen ties with customers. Forrester predicts ePharmacies to connect with patients by encouraging them to take their medication and sending email reminders to refill prescriptions. Online pharmacies must also offer patients interactive treatment tools and site-sponsored support groups that complement drug therapies, according to Forrester.

The most important interaction to consumers at online pharmacies may never be replaced, however. According to a study of 2,500 consumers by Greenfield Online, not being able to talk to a pharmacist or doctor is an obstacle to visiting an online drugstore/pharmacy for 30 percent of the respondents. More than half (57 percent) would visit one of these sites with their doctor’s advice, but only 1 percent have been instructed by their doctor to do so.

Respondents to Greenfield’s survey said they would be extremely/very likely to buy from an online drugstore/pharmacy if they could speak with a doctor (via email–29 percent; via phone 34 percent) or a pharmacist (via email–25 percent; via phone–30 percent). The vast majority (75 percent) of respondents feel it very/extremely important to see the doctor’s or pharmacist’s credentials before seeking their advice.

Nearly 60 percent of those who have visited an online drugstore/pharmacy have made a purchase, according to Greenfield. The most popular reasons for using an online drugstore/pharmacy are time savings (50 percent); can find lowest price (42 percent); the ability to have items delivered (38 percent) and avoiding crowds (53 percent).

The study also found the Internet to be a key source for answering medical questions, second in popularity only to the respondent’s own doctor. Internet sources far surpass brick-and-mortar drugstores/pharmacies, the source least use by this group.

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