Online pharmacies, which offer prescription drugs for as little as $4.99 a pop, have taken off across Australia.
The trend is set to accelerate in coming years as the supply of prescriptions dwindles, particularly in remote areas.
In rural communities, pharmacy supply is increasingly tied to local economies, with people being lured in with low prices and convenience.
The biggest beneficiary is Australia’s largest pharmacy chain, Coles.
“We see a lot of people coming from overseas to buy drugs, and that’s just how the supply chain works,” Coles chief executive officer David Kynaston told the ABC.
“You have people coming to us from overseas who want to buy a product or a medication.
It’s a very competitive market.”
He said Coles was investing $5 million into its online pharmacy program to help people find the drugs they need.
But he said it was a “huge undertaking” for the company to make the necessary investments to grow the business.
The boom in online pharmacies is partly driven by the internet’s democratisation of medicine.
Now, if you are searching for a drug, it’s as easy as clicking on a link.
For a pharmacist, that’s a huge opportunity.
“In the past we would have had to go out and meet with people who have the right equipment to be able to prescribe that medication,” Mr Kynastonsaid.
“Now people can just look online and pick it up.”
In remote communities, rural pharmacies are the biggest beneficiaries of the online trend, with more than 50 per cent of their total prescription volume coming from remote locations.
The rise of online pharmacies can be attributed to the rise of the internet, where many people can access online pharmacies without having to leave their home.
The industry has been growing at a healthy rate of around 20 per cent a year, according to the Australian Pharmacy Association.
However, the growth has slowed in recent years.
In 2017, online pharmacy sales were just $1.8 million.
But the industry is still growing, with the number of people using online pharmacies growing by almost half from 2010 to 2020, to 686,000 people.
Mr Kysaston said the growth was fuelled by a “strong community of consumers”.
“I think it’s a great thing for the community and it’s great for the Australian economy, because it drives more people to the supermarket and the supermarket will be a lot more efficient for them to get what they need.”
In 2018, Cols plans to invest more than $4 million into building a $20 million pharmacy space in its rural South West regional headquarters, to be used for new online pharmacies.
Coles plans to make it easier for rural pharmacies to start online.
But it has not yet decided whether it will launch a mobile pharmacy service, or will instead provide a “mobile pharmacy experience” that allows people to make their own orders from a smartphone.
The Australian Pharmacists Association estimates that there are between 30,000 and 50,000 online pharmacies in Australia.
In the ACT, the number is closer to 1,300.
While online pharmacies are booming, the industry has a long way to go before it becomes mainstream.
The ACT’s Pharmacy Council has warned that the rise in online prescriptions could result in “unnecessary shortages of medicines, medication and supplies”.
Dr Matthew Grewal, the chair of the Pharmacy council, said the rise was “dangerous” and “a big opportunity for unscrupulous operators to profit off of the supply.”
“If the industry starts to take over and take over supply and prices, and we’re in that scenario, then it’s going to be a disaster,” he said.
The Pharmacy Alliance, the pharmacy industry body, has warned of a potential “crisis” in online pharmacy supply in the ACT.
“The ACT is not immune to the online pharmacist phenomenon,” said the Pharmaceutic Association’s executive director, Michelle O’Hara.
“I’m concerned that it is becoming a threat to our system of pharmacy.”
Online pharmacies are not necessarily cheaper than traditional pharmacies, and some have a reputation for having poor customer service.
But there are also online pharmacies offering a more affordable alternative to traditional pharmacies.
“There are lots of people who say online pharmacies provide the cheapest, most effective option, and I think that’s very important,” Mr Grewam said.
“It’s not just the price, but the way you do it, and the quality that you deliver.”
While online pharmacy providers can offer a cheaper option to traditional drugstores, the majority of online pharmacy customers are still limited to a single prescription.
“Our customers don’t need to pay twice, and they don’t pay triple,” Mr O’Brien said.
Online pharmacies are also subject to a new government law, which is due to come into effect next month.
While some people have been happy with the change, others have expressed concern that the changes will make it more difficult for