The pharmacy model has hardly altered in the last 70 years, now Well, the third largest pharmacy in the UK, is working to change that. The company’s Transformation Director, Chris Ellett, explains how.
Well is a physical pharmacy; you go to your doctor to get your prescription, and you walk to the pharmacy to collect that prescription. It’s been that way since Well, previously called the Co-operative Pharmacy, was first established in 1945. Principally, pharmacy still operates within a physical paper-based industry.
When I joined the business in 2017, I was surprised how little the industry had changed. If you look at other sectors, most organisations were shifting online and implementing new technology in the 1990s and early 2000s, but our close association with the NHS meant that, for a long time, there was little incentive for pharmacies to drive change and adopt technology.
But things are changing. Consumers are asking for something different and seeking a relationship that is more suited to their needs and how they live their lives. When I joined Well, my working assumption was that the market was about to shift, and more and more customers will be going online. There were already a few players in online pharmacy, but there was room for us to take the lead. We identified that this was an important step and we needed to be able to provide a choice: an online service to sit alongside the service we already provide instore.
This change has focused on prescriptions, allowing people to order their medication online or via an iOS app. We use Royal Mail as our delivery service for online pharmacy, at no extra charge to the customer. Prescriptions are sent in secure, tamper proof packaging. We wanted to offer our customers a hassle-free experience, allowing them to get their medication delivered straight to their door.
This is still a relatively new category and there is a level of trust that needs to be built as we let people know about the service. We have seen significant growth and stakeholders are starting to realise the move to online and that the use of technology is going to be a big part of our future.
It’s my view that everything still needs to ultimately revolve around physical pharmacies, as they play a critical and essential part in communities but providing choice through technology is a massive opportunity for pharmacy. Not everybody will want to use an online pharmacy, but it’s not about replacing existing services, rather augmenting them. Those in full-time work may not be able to visit the pharmacy or their GP during opening hours, but an online service gives those individuals the flexibility to have easy access to healthcare services at their own convenience. This flexibility is important.
There is a perception that when you have digital and online services, somehow the security threat is higher than it would have been. However, we have been using digital systems in pharmacy since the 1980s and there is a high level of security around systems to ensure the safety of patient data. It doesn’t matter if a patient comes into one of our stores or goes online, patient safety is important to us and we apply the same level of security as we have always done.
Moving pharmacy services online is a complex process. We have had to build an operation that can send prescriptions in the safest possible way, that replicates the process of a customer visiting us instore, and we must maintain this at scale. It isn’t just about building a website or an app; anybody can build these, and maybe they can even get a prescription to a customer, but can they do that at a scale that meets a broader set of needs and simultaneously create commercial value for the business? That is the biggest challenge for us, and we continue to work hard to optimise and improve our service.
As a business, it is our ambition to grow, but also to be recognised and trusted to provide the services our customers need beyond our physical stores. We want to play a role within the online pharmacy sector and unite this with the experience we provide in our community pharmacies, allowing patients to have more flexibility.
We know there is a role for pharmacy to alleviate the pressures on the NHS. It’s a very capable industry with very capable individuals, but there are challenges that need to be overcome in order for us to fulfil that role. One is funding –which has already been reduced. But the biggest challenge is arguably how the UK public view pharmacy; because we’re not yet considered a provider of frontline care. There is an ambition for the UK pharmacy model to mirror the French pharmacy model (where people are more likely to see a pharmacist for advice), but despite a lot of help from Public Health England and NHS England to try to encourage people towards pharmacy, we haven’t yet seen a substantial shift in public perception. There is still a sense that when you are ill, you go to your GP and not your pharmacist – and this is not something we can change overnight.
At Well we are determined to change the way pharmacy works in the UK. We’ll continue to focus on building the best prescription experience and – crucially – to provide the choice people have come to rightly expect.