Digital transformation

Community pharmacists’ clinical expertise and knowledge of medicine must be protected in the age of digital health, writes Issa Dasu Patel…

Digital transformation is sweeping across the healthcare landscape. Fuelled by ambitious government policy, exciting innovation and huge injections of funding, it’s hard for anyone in the sector not to catch a dose of digitisation fever.

But digitisation is not a universal tonic, and it certainly isn’t always a ‘good thing’. In fact, there’s a real danger to digitising healthcare. Such a fundamental change to the very nature of care delivery is an inevitably high-risk process: sometimes things or people get forgotten, vital processes stall, or new systems fail to replicate the strengths of those they replace. Take, for instance, the digitisation of pharmacies.

Over recent years, the public’s use of online-only pharmacies have boomed: in March it was reported that the number of items dispensed from distance-selling pharmacies in England, UK quadrupled between 2016 and 2021.

These online providers offer an attractively convenient way for patients to receive their medicines; replacing a trip to a high street pharmacy with a package delivered straight to their door. On the surface, this digital solution seems perfect not only for young patients with busy schedules, but also for older patients or for those with restricted mobility who may struggle with in-person collection.

But look a little closer, and it soon becomes clear that the exact opposite is the case. That’s because community pharmacies – which online pharmacies are beginning to edge out of their market – are more than just a prescription collection point.

They are essential neighbourhood institutions, staffed by registered pharmacists, technicians and assistants who are a crucial pillar of frontline primary care delivery.

These professionals play a vital role in fielding patients’ questions and offering individualised and contextualised advice within their communities. The rising ranks of online pharmacies are putting this accessible support – delivered by familiar faces – at risk.

This omission may not particularly be an issue for a patient who has a simple, repeat prescription or needs a one-off medication. But as soon as multiple medicines are involved, it becomes a real problem.

A patient taking multiple daily medicines needs the protection of a community pharmacy’s expertise, and direct access to a pharmacist who is knowledgeable about their unique medical history, who understands how medication changes could affect them and how their prescriptions could interact. The value of this personalised care cannot be overestimated.

But losing this type of support is not the only peril of full-throttle digitisation. A deep-dive into the evidence suggests that some online pharmacies are operating in unsafe ways, not only because of the rising number of fitness-to-practise cases involving pharmacy professionals, who were or are working in online pharmacies.

Although these pharmacies are subject to the same regulations as their bricks-and-mortar counterparts (though unofficial, unregulated online pharmacies do exist), media reports indicated that over 20 per cent of the 129 distance-selling pharmacies inspected by the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) between April 2019 and March 2022 failed to meet at least one of the five regulatory standards following their most recent inspection.

Only 2.6 per cent of the 2,808 bricks-and-mortar pharmacies inspected in the same period failed at least one standard. This is a stark contrast, one which the new chair of the GPhC, Gisela Abbam, recently mentioned as a cause of concern.

So, what’s the solution to this digital pharmacy problem? Must the pharmacy sector remain in the past while the rest of healthcare innovates, or must we power ahead, blinkered to the needs of patients taking multiple medicines?

Well, the good news is that neither has to be the case. Digitising medicine management doesn’t have to mean sacrificing personalised pharmacy care. At Connect Care the technology we’ve built brings the tailored support of community pharmacies into the 21st century, so patients and care providers can still benefit from the ease and efficiency of digital tools whilst keeping that critical element of expert-led, personalised care.

Our tech solution makes it easier for patients to manage their medicines with assistive tools that empower them to take the right medication at the right time. Not only this, we’ll send real-time updates to carers and relatives so they know if anything goes wrong and can take immediate action.

But the technology goes one step further. Our solution honours community pharmacies by preserving the role of clinical knowledge and personalised medical insights in medicine management.

It plugs into the existing health software used by pharmacists, clinicians and carers and gives them incredibly detailed, up-to-date information about the way each patient interacts with their medication – from details on missed medicines to possible side effects – making it possible to plan for any additional support that may be needed.

Our real-time, actionable insights help care providers offer improved, highly personalised care – without eating up their time or increasing their admin burden.

Any good digital tool in the pharmacy sector should be designed to minimise system complexities, but that doesn’t have to equate to a scaling down of the invaluable services that pharmacies offer. If we’re to innovate the way we manage medicines, this can’t mean cutting out the personalised support that’s a lifeline to many.

This July, the GPhC chair declared her vision for 2030 to be “safe and effective pharmacy care at the hearts of healthier communities”.

To achieve this, we must be vigilant in ensuring that no patient is left behind as we all move forward to embrace modern, tech-powered ways of working. This is a rallying cry for community pharmacists to demand a digital transformation that delivers positive results for all stakeholders, and to call out the initiatives that are falling short of the mark. We must remember that the future of pharmacies builds on, not demolishes, the past.

Issa Dasu Patel is CEO and co-founder of Connect Care.

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