Digitization at the pharmacy: shoring up the patient journey

Susana Funes

4 May 2017

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Changes in both the healthcare system and the consumer profile are leading the pharmacy towards an evolution from a small medicinal dispensary to a well-being center. New technologies and the prism of the “patient journey” can help it take on this new role.

Today’s citizen has more access than ever to health information and, as they’re getting used to the benefits that come from technology, start to expect the same advantages stemming from personalization, control, and convenience in their health services.

Right now, when Internet penetration is nearly universal (80% in Europe), and there are more than 2 billion active social media users, pharmacists, doctors and the pharmacies themselves are looking how to exploit digitization best.

The sector has a sense of backwardness, due to the nature of the industry and the vast number of regulations in place. Nonetheless, budgetary pressure and changes in both demographic and consumer profile, as well as the evolution of the healthcare system, are making it that every chain looks to support itself with new technologies to gain a better service, optimize their management and guarantee their sustainability.

eHealth and Pharma are two of the sectors with the greatest opportunities for digital transformation that is people-oriented. In taking advantage of technology in the best management and operations, in developing new means of connecting doctors and patients, and, most importantly, in creating new services that produce a change in people’s quality of life.

With their greater financial muscle, pharmaceutical companies were the first to explore new and creative ways of connecting with their different stakeholders, in spite of a lack of a comprehensive strategy in most cases. The pharmacy has moved at a slower pace, especially in local neighborhood pharmacies; chains like Boots, Walgreens, and CVS have executed bolder and far-reaching strategies, although with models off limits for countries like France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Nonetheless, the launch of pharmacies on social media is getting more intense, even on platforms that seem less relevant to pharma like Instagram. There are well-known pharmacist bloggers along with social influencers, both in Spanish and English-speaking markets.

Social networking sites, despite it all, are only a small part of the challenge and evolution that awaits, in parallel: on the one hand, the turn involved in searching for profitability; and, on the other, the new role society demands of it. Digital technologies will be strategic in letting the pharmacy define what’s the path or patient journey of this new consumer -better informed, curious, and proactive-, and offer this new user tools to decide critical points of contact.

The pharmacy as a well-being center

The pressure on health budgets and the reduction in reimbursement subsidies, the important search for alternative revenue sources for the pharmacy and a sophisticated consumer that is more proactive and demanding, are all pushing for a substantial change in Europe’s drugstores.

It’s predicted that in the next few years, the pharmacy will cover a strategic importance in health services, evolving from its traditional role of dispensing medications to turn into an actual center for well-being.

Nonetheless, the evolution of the reactive point of sale -where I go to treat an illness- towards a center of recurrence -where I go to live more healthily-, won’t come from just increasing the amount of available products and services, but instead from the amplification of the pharmacist’s role.

It’s expected that the pharmacist becomes a health reference, a specialized advisor that guides the patient throughout the course of treatment and search of welfare, with greater means of prescription and assistance-taking care of regulations and ethics codes, to safeguard privacy and right service.

This shift will require continuous training and the reinvention of the pharmacist’s role, not just in terms of products and medications, but also with the patient itself, along with new forms of getting in contact with, attending to, and tracking the patient. A rigorous and coherent communication and plan of action are what will grant credibility to the professional and the neighborhood pharmacy, favoring a long-term relationship.

Throughout Europe, different organizations are promoting the expansion of the pharmacy’s role in society. In Scotland, 18 institutions encompassing a total of more than 60,000 doctors called for a radical digital transformation of the health system infrastructure to make it easier to access information and foster a more interconnected way of patient care.

In the case of Spain, 93% of participants in the “Value of the Pharmacy” poll affirmed that their future pathway went through a care model. Nutrition advice, personalized dosage systems, and pharma-therapeutically tracking are the most common services in Spanish pharmacies. They’ve also developed services in areas like cosmetics, nutrition, and getting people to stop smoking, along with specialties like orthopedics and podiatry.

Nonetheless, there’s still a lot of ground to cover for growth and learning. The actual impact and value would come from a greater link to patients, taking advantage of the benefits stemming from proximity and familiarity with their communities to better understand their needs and offer them a comprehensive level of care.

The pharmacist’s future, then, notes a transformation into an advisor that accompanies and helps the visitor throughout the entire patient journey. A guide that helps the patient along this path from the moment the pain is identified up to diagnosis, undergo treatment and waits for their state to normalize, or a coach in their daily effort for a healthy state.

The new client and patient

Users’ expectations in the sector are getting more molded by their experiences in other industries, especially in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG). If they can book a flight on their phone, why not schedule a doctor’s appointment too?

Digitally empowered consumers are taking greater control of their health and are demanding more personalization, transparency, and convenience in all aspects, including health care services. As Forrester warns, the real consumer is getting to the point of even rewarding or punishing brands based on one experience.

Although this tendency is much more noted in liberalized markets, and ethical considerations are key, the pharmacy can learn from FMCG in their new ways of connecting with the user and taking care of the customer journey, to pioneer in services and develop strategies that bring traffic to the drugstore and favor a long-term relationship.

The definition of the client journey -patient journey, in our case- is an essential practice for understanding and foreseeing the client’s needs about how they move through different touchpoints with the brand or establishment. Those movements where the new consumer makes purchasing decisions, breaking with the traditional linear model of awareness, interest, desire, action.

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As a marketing focus, determining the buyer persona and their respective customer journeys aim to offer products and services that cater to the demands and requirements of the different types of consumers, creating attractive, relevant and satisfying experiences for every journey and stage.

The patient journey at the pharmacy

If the pharmacy’s future is its evolution into a well-being center, digital technologies offer tools to get to know and track the most conscious and demanding consumer, keeping them company during the entire treatment period as well as in the search for a healthier lifestyle.
Here we propose a general model of the patient journey. It’s a panorama of the connected citizen’s pathway as they confront health issues, which looks for which are the real and virtual points of contact within the health care system, and identifies what opportunities for action the pharmacist has in any given moment.


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By changing the prism from which it looks at the patient journey, the pharmacy can take care of any interaction with their customers, as well as look at the products and services they can offer throughout the duration of the journey.

Customer profiles, their purchase intentions, vital and emotional moments that will incite during the interaction and relationship with the pharmacy. The path will be very different for the person looking for suntan lotion and contraceptives, more geared towards cost or opportunity. The link will be greater for those patients with a chronic condition than for someone looking for diapers and diet food.

The challenge for the drugstore will be to have an available integrated database with a much deeper customer profile that includes details about their general condition, visit history, consultations, and transactions, always while protecting the patient’s right to privacy.

Opportunities for improving the journey

The patient journey prism allows for a clearer vision of how new consumers are confronting their healthcare issues, and in this way responding to their needs and expectations. Although strategies will depend on markets, regulations and the patient’s profile, here we write down some opportunities for action.

Within the patient’s pathway, information is critical in both the prediagnostic stage, as well as comprehending the diagnosis and following treatment. Currently, when looking for medications for common aches and pains, like a cold or a headache, users tend to look at search engines (49.4%), medical websites (45,8%), blogs and forums (32.5%), more than healthcare personnel.

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When faced with other illnesses, if the patient used to buy just what was prescribed to them, they now get informed online when they feel the first symptoms, even before going to see a doctor. Once diagnosed, the patient tends to go back to search engines to find out what the diagnosis means and its implications. And a lot of times before going to buy what’s on the prescription, they figure out the medication’s ingredients and potential side effects to either seek alternatives, look for more moderately-priced generic drugs, brands, and presentations.

In light of this view, it’s fundamental to develop communication strategies that consider the media sources that patients look at. The pharmacy should digitally position itself as an advisor and true source of information that helps the patient resolve their doubts, understand the indications in their therapeutic regimen, avoiding both self-medication and abandoning treatment.

In this sense, the pharmacy can offer rigorous value-adding content on blogs and social networking sites -own or third party, but from trustworthy sources, that guide the citizen regarding common illnesses and pains, seasonal maladies, guidelines for taking medications and advice for living a healthy life.

Organizations like The Royal Pharmaceutical Society and The General Pharmaceutical Council have a Social Media Toolkit and codes of conduct for the pharmacist on social media. We should never underestimate the importance of and to never banalize the dispensing of medication, associating it with gifts, promotions or prizes of pharmacy inventory.

In the treatment and normalization phases, they can take advantage of online apps and platforms designed for pharmaceutical assistance. They allow for tracking patients’ health through protocoled and personalized programs of visits, with notifications for check-ups and appointments, record and consultation of history, as well as issue reports and personalized advice.

With a rigorous tracking of patients with chronic or long-lasting illnesses, the pharmacy could offer information and services that ease their time living with the disease and facilitate continuous treatment. As necessary, the pharmacy could even recommend solutions that complement the prescription or that help alleviate side effects, adapted to every profile.

When it comes to over-the-counter (OTC) and personal hygiene products, digital mediums are ideal for impulsing independent lines of business like cosmetics and nutrition –among the most widely searched terms on the Internet. In these lines of business, they can apply retail strategies concerning content marketing, such as competitions and social media campaigns, to generate traffic and pique interest in the pharmacy.

Preparing ourselves for what’s coming

New consumers are more and more used to using mobile apps and wearables, especially when they require a constant following of their health status, like diabetics or those having high blood pressure. According to a GfK study, 55% of global Internet users say they monitor their physical state to improve their health, and 17% of them do it to control another condition.

It’s clear that technology will keep impacting the sector. According to IDC projections, more than 60% of health organizations will use biosensors in 2019. They also predict that 40% of medical attention apps will gather data from clinical wearables that will detect patterns, being able to get predictive diagnostics.

Beyond futuristic predictions, in sensitive areas like this one society keeps expecting professionalism and closeness. One of the key factors in supporting patients is recognizing that every person -and therefore, every therapy- is different, so communication and care should be adapted to everyone. Technology and the prism of the patient journey will end up being strategic for getting there.