Pharmacy Wars | Online and Traditional players spar

By RAMRAI NAIK

On May 30, 2017, AIOCD observed a nationwide bandh of pharmacies for 24 hours straight in protest of the operations of e-portals

The Indian e-commerce space is growing at a rapid pace. Things like vehicles, gold, or even fresh goods like fish and groceries have started selling on the online platform. When all of these have started their sales, how do medicines remain behind? While issues of convenience will be solved to a large extent through the online sale; the new market, at the same time, brings its own set of negatives. Industry observers raise grave concerns which might be overlooked by the authorities and the decades old regulatory framework.

Pharmaceutical companies are known to keep a very high margin on every product, especially the branded ones. Consumers will be hugely benefitted due to online sale of medicines as there will be competitive prices provided by multiple sellers. Increased sale would compensate the retailers keeping a low margin. Companies can even open their own online stores through which the trusted brands will gain significantly from the new trend. Advertising will be better targeted to the potential customers with the internet algorithms doing the magic on search engines and social media sites.

When it comes to the government, the regulatory body will be able to monitor the exact sales of any medicines, pharmacy, wholesalers. There will be real-time insights and trends available on the increasing diseases in the country or a particular region due to tracking of particular sale. This rich data will help the researchers in various studies and surveys. This also provides a platform for small pharmacists to take up their business on the internet.

Online aggregators will have to ensure a level playing field for big and small players alike; however, due to several reasons, major brands with their heavy marketing and reliable services move ahead in the business while the small sellers due to their own limitations fall behind. Insights on such platforms provide easy method to track demand generation.

India currently, has a massive internet connectivity through which many consumers could benefit from such technological advancement. It is evident that there are multiple benefits that consumers can draw from online sale. What’s worrying is the absence of government framework to regulate the sale. Currently, the leading online companies work on self-regulation with a certain code of conduct, but to what extent the companies adhere to strict standards are unknown.

Raj Vaidya, owner of Hindu Pharmacy elaborates on the irregularities of online sales of medicine. He says, “Online pharmacies are currently illegal. The Bombay High Court has also asked the government to shut these. Yet the government is doing nothing about it. If at all any permissions are to be given, first the government has to streamline the medicine train. Presently, the government cannot manage or regulate this properly which is blatantly allowing onliners to run illegally.” Vaidya feels that the government will get the wakeup call only when there will be serious trouble, which will further be a national tragedy.

Government appointed sub-committee headed by Maharashtra FDA Commissioner Dr. Harshdeep Kamble has made several suggestions with regards to e-pharmacy. The committee suggested opening up a centralised e-portal for registration of online pharmacies, mandating the sale of drugs on e-prescription, audit trial to prevent drug abuse, linking prescription with Aadhar Card.

Pharmaceutical companies are known to keep a very high margin on every product, especially the branded ones. Consumers will be hugely benefitted due to online sale of medicines as there will be competitive prices provided by multiple sellers. Increased sale would compensate the retailers keeping a low margin

The Kamble panel also recommended excluding certain categories of drugs which are sensitive in nature such as narcotics, psychotropic drugs, habit forming drugs and others. Many of those recommendations will convert into a full-fledged law for regulating the online medicine sale. The Government is planning to have an e-portal through which online, as well as offline pharmacies will be regulated.

Mandating offline pharmacies for the e-portal registration has received flak from nearly 8 lakh pharmacies in India which are associated with All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists. The AIOCD which generally comprises of offline pharmacists had consistently opposed the idea of online sale of drugs. On May 30, 2017, AIOCD observed a nationwide bandh of pharmacies for 24 hours straight in protest of the e-portal.

Prasad Tamba informed that the All India Organisation of Chemist & Druggists has approached the central government multiple times with the issues of the industry. He says they had written to Health Minister, as well as Prime Minister. Since there has been no response from the government, their organisation had to resort to a strike.

Prasad Tamba, President of Goa Branch, All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists (AIOCD), strongly disapproves the Government’s decision of regulating sale of medicines through an e-portal. “We are opposing the idea of e-portal because it will complicate a simple process of buying medicine and put the additional cost on the patients. We will have to scan every prescription which will be verified by the e-portal and bills will be generated. In the process, a chemist will have to put the added cost of Rs 200 on every transaction on the patients. Patient will have to bear this fixed charge set by the government on behalf of the chemist as well as doctors,” asserts Tamba.

Major criticism of an e-pharmacy has been that most of the times medicines will be sold without checking the quality. Despite having amendments, habit forming, fake medicines will be sold to the end consumers which will then have adverse drugs reaction. Stakeholders also see an impact of online pharmacies on the physical pharmacies.

Raj Vaidya opines, “Physical pharmacies will be affected but only time will tell to what extent and how the equations will be. This level of unregulated online sale of medicine does not happen in other countries. India, unfortunately, has promoted chaos.”

Sailee Govekar, pharmacy student says, “Online medicines are good for those who are on medication for a chronic illness which usually goes for months or years. However, it won’t be useful for the acute illnesses where the patient will require getting the medicine immediately. In such cases, they will take the prescription and get them from the nearest pharmacy store, rather than buying it online which will take a rather long time to deliver.” Sailee also foresees an impact on the small pharmacy stores, if the e-pharmacy business model progresses over a period of time.

Tamba doubts the authenticity of the drugs that will be available online. He says, “There won’t be proper quality checks maintained on the Online Sale of medicines. For instance, if the doctor tells you to take Crocin only and the website sends you some other cheap alternative then that will be a major issue. Also, there have been cases where the online sellers have been found to remove the expiry dates with the help of spirits and have been putting up new expiry dates. Therefore, authenticity of the drug is a big question.”

The Government is yet to make amendments to the Drugs and Cosmetic Act, through which the e-portal would function. Some have even raised questions on the IT infrastructure that is required for such a system to work at the national level. Challenges even lie ahead for rural areas with lack of internet connectivity.

If the government mandates the online pharmacies to have a physical store to be able to trace and track, then many mishaps can be prevented. Further, the authorities can conduct the routine quality check exercise.

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