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Online pharmacies gain traction during the pandemic

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Posted at 10:16 AM, Aug 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-03 13:19:05-04

More people are turning to online pharmacies. For some, the pandemic helped accelerate that switch.

“Alto Pharmacy was started six years ago by two Facebook engineers that were frustrated with the existing pharmacy experience and how bad it was, how little technology had been applied,” Michael Krueger, a spokesperson for Alto Pharmacy, said.

Alto is a full-service pharmacy you can’t actually walk into. Everything is delivered with same-day delivery.

“We refer to ourselves as a community pharmacy because we have a physical location in each of the markets we serve. The only difference is instead of stores, we bring it to you,” Krueger said.

Alto grew from two to 10 markets in the past 18 months, as the pandemic hit the U.S.

Krueger said they are disrupting the traditional pharmacy model. He said pharmacists tell him they can get frustrated with the setup of a traditional pharmacy.

“You're hiring a PhD, and you're putting them behind the counter to do a mix of filling prescriptions, managing insurance, ringing up someone in front of you who's buying Red Bull and Doritos,” he said.

Kruger said this model is also different from mail-order medications.

“A mail-order pharmacy can never be your only pharmacy because of those short-term needs. A community pharmacy that uses delivery like Alto can be your only full-service pharmacy,” he explained.

Almost everyone needs prescription medication at some point in their life.

The prescription medication industry reached a record $465 billion in 2020, according to the Drug Channels Institute.

“It’s had almost no innovation, the customer experience has been largely unchanged for 20, 30, 40 years,” Krueger said.

Not everyone agrees that the industry hasn’t seen innovation in decades.

“That’s really not true...but...it’s confusing. I mean there's so many different ways to access medications,” Douglas Hoey, the CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association, said.

Hoey said while he has seen an increase in online pharmacies due to the pandemic, he doesn’t classify them as much different than mail order.

“The online pharmacies, most of them are shipping the meds through the mail. They’re kind of like mail order 2.0 or mail order 3.0, so it really boils down to what patients prefer,” he said.

With more use of online ordering to get meds came more concern with scams.

“Online has really been a big problem trying to corral what’s good and not good flowing through online,” Hoey said.

Last month, the FDA released a list of over 50 online pharmacies that received a warning letter about illegal operations.

Misinformation in the online space is something Krueger works to educate people about.

“We’re working hard every day to help people understand the trustworthiness of the Alto model,” he said.

It means people like Elissa Ellis have to do tier research as they switch to ordering medications online, no matter where they get prescriptions from.

“We do individually have to be vigilant,” Ellis said.

She is one of many who started ordering her meds online during the pandemic and among the group of people online pharmacies are going after.

“Not have to go into a busy pharmacy and stand in line, you're right up on people,” Ellis said.

A national survey by Public Policy Polling shows that 80 percent of participants preferred getting prescription drugs from a local pharmacist over a mail-order service. But companies like Alto are working to create a more personal experience with the ability to talk to a pharmacist in real-time.

“There’s a new generation of companies that are seeing opportunities to do this in a better way,” Krueger said.