Online pharmacies are helping to lower healthcare costs in India
They are also making drugs more accessible in remote areas. But if you need a drug immediately, which is often the case, your local druggist is still the best option
In September, the All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists (AIOCD) held protests against the Central government’s draft proposal to formalise online sales of drugs. Despite online pharmacies contributing only 2-3% of total drug sales in India, the drugs association felt threatened enough to call for a panIndia bandh. The protests saw participation by 8.5 lakh chemists across the country.
What happened in general retail, with the entry of Flipkart, Amazon and Snapdeal, is now happening in drug retail. With lower prices and easy accessibility, online drug retail ventures are beginning to hurt physical drug stores.
Prices online are 10-20% lower than in offline. “Online players cut out so many of the costs — real estate, inventory, salaries to employees, utilities, intermediaries,” says Prashant Tandon, CEO of e-pharmacy 1mg and president of the Digital Health Platform (DHP) — formerly called India Internet Pharmacy Association — an association of eight e-pharmacies in India. The only significant costs that online players have are related to delivery.
Tandon says that in cancer, treatment costs could be between Rs 12 lakh and Rs 40 lakh. And drugs cost between 30-60% of total treatment costs, depending on of drugs,” say online players. Tandon says offline is more susceptible to manipulation and fraud. “Punjab today has an opioid crisis only because of lack of law enforcement in the offline space,” says Tandon.
But none of this is likely to immediately take away the relevance of offline druggists. In many cases, you need the drugs immediately, unlike a smartphone or a pair of jeans. That’s not something online can do. “We can’t replace what offline is doing. The arrival of Amazon and Flipkart didn’t see the extinction of offline stores. It’s the same with us,” says Netmeds’ Dadha.
The online association DHP has also decided to avoid sale of habit-forming narcotic, psychotropic drugs and painkillers. “As a selfregulated body, we have decided to not sell schedule X drugs,” says Rajiv Gulati, general secretary of DHP and founder of e-pharmacy mChemist. DHP will focus on cardiovascular diseases, cancer, hypertension, diabetes, asthma, arthritis or conditions of the central nervous system. The objective is to meet the need for drugs for chronic conditions.
“I see no reason for offline retailers to feel threatened. We form such a minuscule portion of drug sales that we can play a complementary role. We are looking at making drugs more accessible. After all, it may not be profitable to set up brick-and-mortar stores in tier-3 cities or remote villages and towns,” says Gulati.