With discussions heating up about universal Pharmacare in Canada, one way or the other the dispensing of prescription medication in this country appears ripe for disruption.
And a Surrey, B.C., startup called PocketPills is very busy laying claim to its role in the changing landscape.
The company is effectively offering an on-line service that features a combination of automation as well as quick responses from live pharmacists, along with the eventual goal of same day delivery.
After launching in B.C. and Yukon Territory about a year ago, it is now also operating in Alberta and Ontario and the service is coming soon to Manitoba.
While it works at establishing its operation — which features home delivery, robotic packaging of daily dosage packs, automated prescription renewal requests and quick response to queries from live pharmacists — the company intends to eventually offer same day delivery in as many communities as it can. It recently started a pilot project to do same day delivery in Vancouver, but elsewhere it is using Canada Post and FedEx to deliver medication to the home.
According to Raj Gulia, a pharmacist and one of the co-founders, PocketPills is not looking to displace local pharmacies.
"We very much appreciate what the local pharmacists do," Gulia said. "But if you look around globally, people are looking to buy things on-line. We are new technology. We are an alternative solution for for buying medications on-line."
PocketPills has a mobile app where patients can sign up and create an account. But it also has established a robust platform that includes live-chat, texting, faxing or telephone communications.
Although Gulia said its Manitoba launch has been delayed — he said the province is having trouble testing out PocketPill's software ensuring that it synchs properly with Manitoba Health — he said there has already been interest expressed from some rural communities.
That may or may not be PocketPills eventual sweet spot — servicing communities that do not have easy access to pharmacies. The company boasts rapid response from pharmacists who can advise customers on when to take medication, potential side effects and any other question.
Gulia said PocketPills differentiates itself three ways: it will deliver anywhere in Canada (in the provinces it is registered to operate in) as long as there is an address or a post office box, including in rural and remote areas of the country; it will have a $7 dispensing fee, that Gulia claims is lower than just about everyone else in the business; and its use of robotic packaging allows it to collect patients daily doses in packages for every occasion.
"We are cutting down the costs, helping with the medications and disease management." - Raj Gulia
"If someone is on daily multi-medications some people, like seniors for instance, may find it hard to take multiple doses multiple times per day," he said. "We pack them in daily dose packages that the customer just rips open and does not have to open different bottles making sure they're taking the right pills at the right time."
"We are cutting down the costs, helping with the medications and disease management," he said..
Using robotics for pharmacy packaging is not new. Companies like Winnipeg's Arxium Inc. (formerly Intelligent Hospital Systems) have been making such technology for almost 20 years now. PocketPills will set up dispensaries and distribution operations in every province they operate in.
Gulia said the fact that it is automating so much of the pharmacists tasks, it will leave its pharmacists with more time to talk to customers.
"When I was working in retail pharmacies, 70-to-75 per cent of my time was spent checking the prescriptions making sure all the data was entered correctly and I rarely had time to spend with the customer," he said. "Our software takes care of lots of those things. We can bring the pharmacist from behind the counter and free up time to talk to the patient, and educate them about their condition, about the medications."
The company raised about $2 million in a seed round of financing and is signing up 100 new customers every day. It is working with companies like the Johnston Group in Winnipeg to connect with group customers.
Canada is expected to spend $33.7 billion on prescribed drugs in 2018, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) with about 20 per cent of that being paid out of pocket by people who do not have insurance coverage.
Gulia said PocketPill is a tech-driven pharmacy start-up that's hoping to change the way Canadians fill and manage their medications.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.