Over the last few years, especially with the increasing use of e-prescription by hospitals coupled with internet penetration and enormous growth in the number of smartphone users, the e-pharmacy industry in India is slowly gaining significance.
Instead of visiting brick-and-mortar pharmacies, there has been a rising demand for buying medicines online and one of the main reasons for this is convenience.
Though the e-pharmacy industry is at a nascent stage in the country, according to Frost & Sullivan, the market, which is estimated to be around $512 million (Rs 3,500 crore) in 2018, is estimated to grow at a CAGR of 63% to reach $3.65 billion (Rs 25,000 crore) by 2022.
Many players have forayed into the space to tap the growing demand and opportunity. At present, there are many players such as Medlife, Netmeds, PharmEasy, 1MG, CareOnGo, and Myra.
According to Frost & Sullivan’s ‘In the Spotlight: e-pharmacy in India, an exponential growth opportunity’ report, the e-pharmacy market has the potential to be a very large industry segment in the near future. It is expected that the e-pharmacy model could account for 15%- 20% of the total pharma sales in India over next 10 years, largely by enhancing adherence and access to medicines for a majority of the under-served population, the report adds.
E-pharmacy company Medlife, which has about 30% market share, was founded in November 2014. “We want to take our market share from the present 30% to 50% in two years,” says Tushar Kumar, Founder, and CEO of Medlife.
Medlife has been diversifying and also offering value-added services like online consultation, scheduling appointments with doctors and clinics, app-based healthcare related services, health blogs and tie up with diagnostics and laboratories. “We will be starting our offline presence and we are in talks with pharmacies. To begin with, we are planning 250 stores and within the next two years, we will be having 1,000 stores, and for these acquisitions, we will be investing Rs 250 crore,” he informs.
The e-pharma industry as a whole is yet to scratch even a single percentage point of the overall retail pharmacy spend, we can safely assume that the early adopters, roughly 5 million, are soon to be joined by millions more, says Pradeep Dadha, Founder and CEO of Netmeds.com.
The online pharmacy company currently operates in more than 19,000 pin codes across the country. “FICCI has projected e-pharma spending to touch Rs 20,000 crore by the end of the decade, and 2019 will be the launch pad for hitting that target. E-pharma is quite mature in the US and EU and has been evolving since 2000,” adds Dadha.
Talking about advantages of buying medicines online, Dadha says, “Prescription medicines are nearly 15%-20% cheaper when bought online as it eliminates the need of a physical store, thereby reducing costs. When it comes to the regular supply of medicines for chronic and rare illnesses, the local chemist might find it difficult to stock such high-value inventory. Buying these medicines online and at a discounted price works for customers, who need a steady supply of medicines from time to time. Faster delivery, wider reach, and accessibility even in remote locations, cost-effectiveness and convenience are some of the many advantages of buying medicines online.”
In the US, e-pharmacies are permitted but the pharmacy must be domiciled within the US. Also, a prescription is only considered valid if issued by an authorised medical practitioner.
Dharmil Sheth, Founder of PharmEasy says, “US, Europe, South America, and other countries also have e-pharmacies that are at a very mature level. We can compare the Indian e-pharmacies with the mail-order pharmacies in the US, which has subscriptions of millions of patients. It is a similar model where the patient is once enrolled, the medicines are then couriered to them every month as per the subscription programme. India needs to use not just technology, digital platforms for e-pharmacies, but also the entire ecosystem for entire OPD (Outpatient Department).”
He adds that at present, the entire experience is broken where a patient has to get a paper-based prescription and hunt for medicines from pharmacy stores or be it diagnostic tests where paper prescription from doctors are taken and hunt for labs to get the tests done.
PharmEasy, which was founded in March 2015, has delivered to 17,000 pin codes, of the total 22,000 pin codes in the country.
For customers, it is easy to order online as it is just a click of a button. Also, if it is a subscription model, after the first order, consumers do not even have to remember when to order their medicines again.
“Our platform uses technology to a great extent, understands what is the dosage order and when it has to be refilled for the patient,” Sheth says, whose company has grown 300% year-on-year. In the case of any issues with the drug, recall is possible. “Every strip can be uniquely identified. Availability is one of the biggest advantages as it is practically impossible for a pharmacy to actually stock all medicines. We are able to identify which partner retailer has the medicines that are required, and because of this, consumers are spared the task of hunting medicines,” Sheth adds.
Customers have to take a picture of a valid prescription and upload it on the app and mention the address and phone number.
“We will fulfill the order as per the requirement. There is a certain class of drugs which we have restricted on our platforms and also other online pharmacies are in sync with this. There is a self-regulation code of conduct that we follow. We do not sell schedule X medicines, medicines which are psychotropic in nature, sleep-inducing, or habit-forming, and medicines which have a potential of abuse. To chronic patients, we always supply medicines within schedule C, schedule H, and H1,” informs Sheth.
The Union Health Ministry in August last year released draft rules on the sale of drugs by e-pharmacies and online pharmacies are expecting the government to come out with final regulations any time soon.
Tushar Kumar of Medlife says, “Currently there are no regulations governing e-pharmacy specifically. We operate as per the D&C Act (Drugs and Cosmetics) and IT Act. Regulations specifically governing e-pharmacies would be extremely helpful as it would help those of us who are operating legally to carry the necessary marks and this improved public perception will in turn help grow the industry.” E-pharmacy draft guidelines say that e-pharmacies are currently governed by state drug regulators. The draft proposes that the DCGI (Drug Controller General of India) should be the sole agency granting approvals to e-pharmacies. Companies operating e-pharmacies are required to take one license in any state. Any state license will enable the pharmacies to sell drugs all over the country.
“The only challenge right now is the speed in which the policy is being thought through. Though there has been tremendous support from the government and the regulators in terms of bringing in clarity and framework for online pharmacies, still we are struggling to get the desired environment for working in India. There have been multiple court cases and we would really appreciate faster movement on clarification from the government in this space,” says Sheth.
Sheth also adds that people today are non-compliant in terms of purchasing medicines. “People upload 5-10-year old prescriptions. There are times when there are no prescriptions as well and people demand medicines. This is because the offline channel has not been that compliant and hence people are not used to the habit of producing valid prescriptions while buying drugs. This is another thing that we are solving for the industry for better compliance as well,” he adds.
It is expected that once the final regulations for the companies selling medicines online are out, there will be more online players and the market is expected to flourish, benefiting both e-pharmacies and customers.