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Pharma Frontiers

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Have you visited Apollo Pharmacy’s website recently? I did, and found that the company has temporarily stopped processing orders because it is upgrading its software. 
It could be a genuine reason; it could also possibly be an excuse. 
There is a raging debate going on in the country with regard to the legality of online medicine sales. Apollo, one of the country’s best known brands when it comes to healthcare delivery, must have simply decided not to be caught in the cross-fire. That’s my guess.
Apollo is not what I intend to discuss. It is the online sale of drugs in general. It becomes topical as e-commerce player and many others are being charge sheeted by drug control authorities in several states for selling prescription medicines online without doctors’ “prescription”. 
India’s apex advisory body on drug regulations - the Drugs Consultative Committee (DCC) with its members drawn from all state and central drug controllers of the country – is meeting next week to deliberate, among other issues, this topic also. 
Are online sales of medicines legal? 
Strictly speaking, it is a complex question. Since the drug laws were framed several years before the entry of e-commerce, there is an obvious lacuna in the law. If one assumes such sales are different from conventional retail drug trade, there is no legal framework binding such sales at the moment. It is a recent phenomenon for which specific laws needs to be framed. 
However if you look at the issue from another angle, and ask “whether we need to permit online sales?” the answer becomes an obvious, “yes!”
That is because, online platform is nothing but a technology enabled marketplace where sales happen in the same way as it happens otherwise. For instance,, a Delhi based company that enables home delivery of medicines, does it strictly on the basis of prescription. It allows the customer to email the prescription, it sources the medicine from a registered pharmacy on the basis of that prescription, and delivers it at a discounted price. The customer saves money, time and trouble. Everything else remains the same. Most online pharmacies, and there are plenty of them, function in the same manner. The lucrativeness of online drug sale has attracted investors and entrepreneurs alike. Technology entrepreneur Phaneesh Murthy, who has announced plans to launch an online marketplace for drug sellers, is just one example.   
It is a booming market, as there are many Indians – geriatric patients, chronic patients, corporate executives – who find online purchase and home delivery a boon.
So, the discussion in DCC, when it meets next week, should not be to ban or not ban online sales of medicines, but to find a way to regulate e-commerce of drugs. 
Other countries allow online medicine sales. Even if they don’t, DCC can look at the sticking points and find solutions on its own because online sale, I repeat, is very much similar to physical, marketplace sale. 
To begin with, lets shed the false notion that unethical online sale of medicine is something more dangerous than conventional way of unethical sales. Both are equally bad. It is a known fact that one can buy as many drugs; however restricted they might be, without prescription from retail medicine outlets. It can happen online too. But online transactions, including drugs, with its multiple possibilities of track and trace opportunities provide a better chance for effective regulation. 
It would be worth considering a registration system for online entities that sell medicines. Let a special cell be created in the office of the Drugs Controller General of India to categorize them, depending on whether they sell only over-the-counter products, or prescription medicines. There can even be separate government approved logos to differentiate registered websites from others. Let there be standards fixed for packaging, and delivery. 
This is a sector that is waiting to take off. The government needs to take a pro-active step. The result can only be positive. The industry will benefit, the business will gain, and the consumer will win.

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