A couple of weeks ago, I met senior executives from Bengaluru start-up PM Health & Life Care. The company is getting ready to fire off an online marketplace for prescription drugs that connects chemists to consumers. I was surprised with the timing; that they would choose to reach out when just a little before, the Maharashtra Food & Drugs Administration cracked down on Snapdeal for allowing vendors to sell drugs online. More on why they felt emboldened, later.
Intermediaries for online drug retail will have to shoulder a far greater responsibility for what passes through their channels than they would say, for clothes or shoes. Read why in this column that I wrote for Indian Express published today. And yet, given the far from well-governed nature of drug retail in the country – where drugs are routinely sold without prescription and laws flouted – the intermediary can only be as good as its partner on the ground.
P M Health plans to throw technology at the problem. It believes that by minimising human discretion from click to delivery, it can ensure that no drug is sold without a valid doctor’s prescription and that only legitimate orders are fulfilled. For instance, unless a scanned copy of the doctor’s prescription is uploaded on the site and is verified by a “command centre” manned by pharmacists, the system will not let it be fulfilled. The chemist rep making the delivery will be “trained” to hand over the drugs only after he or she has hologrammed the original prescription (after checking it against the uploaded version) and sent a scanned copy of this original to the centre. It claims to have tied up with only those chemists that employ full-time pharmacists and assured me it would drop any chemist found flouting the rules.
As I have observed in the column, its proposed system of surprise checks of vendors, training and audits put me in mind of a company outsourcing its core activity rather than merely acting as a conduit. That is a tall order. Progress (or scale-up) will be gradual and compliance will be a continuous challenge.
And then there is the law. It shows no sign of keeping pace; there is no clear legal pathway for online drug retail. So, skirmishes between intermediaries and regulators cannot be ruled out. True, with chemists routinely delivering orders placed over the phone in cities, the real world is way ahead of the law. But that is no reason for regulators to wink at such behaviour from corporates as the Snapdeal episode shows. Too much of that and investors will get spooked so fund-raising will be a challenge.
This blog is in favour of convenience. And if done correctly, online retail – once proven in the cities – could become an efficient method of reaching drugs to consumers beyond cities and towns where access continues to be a problem. But if done badly, it might compound long-standing issues of self-medication and spurious drugs. That is a situation that no amount of convenience can justify.