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Online pharmacy owned by GPs takes off

Dr Martin Rankin describes the internet-based repeat medication service he set up which is owned by a syndicate of GPs

Dr Rankin: 'Our business is growing month on month'. (Picture: Mike Alsford)
Dr Rankin: 'Our business is growing month on month'. (Picture: Mike Alsford)

The idea for a pharmacy owned by a syndicate of GPs began to take shape while our practice was negotiating the renewal of the lease of a pharmacy our practice rented to a national chain.

We discovered that the pharmacy was making a staggering profit of around £320,000 a year and paying us just £11,000 in rent.The many restrictions on granting pharmacy licences mean that large chains dominate the market. With their bankers behind them, they are able to outbid entrepreneurial pharmacists and so independent pharmacies are becoming rare. Pharmacy is detached from primary care with pharmacists having to concentrate on targets from head office.

My Doctor's Chemist, the online pharmacy I set up is now over a year old and it aims to change this by integrating pharmacy into primary care. My reasoning is that pharmacists should be able to help GPs gain more QOF points and, in the process, build a closer relationship with both patients and GP surgeries. Despite increasing scarcity of NHS funding, by working together in a more cohesive manner we will make savings and be able to re-invest back into primary care.

Writing a business plan

Writing a business plan, investigating the tedious legal framework that would allow GPs to own a pharmacy and share the profits, was the first step. I then recruited a pharmacist, Piers Berry, who suggested that we should opt for an internet pharmacy that potentially all GPs could join.

After a couple of years of research I was convinced that a pharmacy service which patients would like and which would distribute half its profits to GP surgery members was viable.

I talked to most of the high street banks and the only question they asked was: ‘How much equity is there in your house?’ It was obvious they were completing forms and ticking boxes and, like a PHQ9 score, just as depressing. I started approaching pharmacy wholesalers and again ran into credit scoring systems. I needed to make a decision. I invested about £100,000 of my own money and secured £1 million in finance and facilities for the venture.

Oppostion to plans

Once I had decided to go for it, I invited all the practices in my PCT to join a syndicate. But the moment I went public I discovered I was going to face a lot of opposition.

The established pharmacies did not warm to the idea that an entrepreneurial GP proposed running a pharmacy, but the prospect of all the practices in Plymouth joining his partnership seemed terrifying. One pharmacy business via its lawyers threatened to report me to the Financial Services Authority (FSA). I called the FSA which reassured me that its authorisation would not be required.

The next attempt to derail us was the local pharmaceutical committee. It wrote to me saying its concern was with ‘the potential for the network of pharmacies to be undermined...’ It also wrote to every practice in the PCT with the same warning. I thought that if they were making that much fuss then we must be onto something. I took legal advice and kept on ploughing my own money in. I never doubted that we would not succeed.

Open for business

We opened for business on 18 April 2011 as an internet pharmacy www.doctorschemist.co.uk, where patients can register, request their repeat medication and then wait at home or work for the medication to be delivered. We function like most pharmacies in that we collect prescriptions from surgeries, physically or by freepost, and then we deliver them directly to the patients. We prompt the patient to remember to order their medication and try to give useful feedback to the surgeries about patients and their medicines.

Payments to surgeries are based on list size and patients’ use of the pharmacy. We do not pay per prescription and do not suggest to surgeries that they direct prescriptions to us. We usually find that patients want to use us for our service and because we put money back into their surgery.

Teething problems

There were some teething problems as with any new business. There was a lot of scepticism to begin with and we got comments such as ‘too good to be true’ and ‘where’s the catch?’ but here we are. We now have 18 GP practices in the syndicate and have been trading for over 12 months.  The business is growing month on month and in June 2012, for example, the number of prescriptions we processed went up by 24%.

The My Doctor’s Chemist team is now focused on working with website provider for GP surgeries, www.MySurgerywebsite.co.uk on a UK-wide roll out plan. This aims to provide an integrated online repeat medications service to patients to begin with. When we get a significant enough number of patients in an area using us, we will open up a local branch with a pharmacist partner.

We would welcome enquiries from any entrepreneurial GPs and pharmacists in the UK who would like to join us.

HOW IT WORKS

My Doctor’s Chemist is for anyone who receives repeat prescriptions from their GP practice if it participates in the scheme. Patients using the online service follow a three-step process that states:

Register - Sign up for My Doctor’s Chemist by filling in a form at your GP surgery. They will give you the login details for the My Doctor’s Chemist website.

Order - Log into the My Doctor’s Chemist website whenever you need to order a repeat prescription. Our simple-to-use online system will guide you through the process – you can order your medication and pay any prescription charges from the comfort of your own home. 

Deliver – The day after we receive your prescription from your Doctor we will deliver your medication to your home or work. Delivery is secure and completely free. Alternatively, you can choose to pick up your medication from one of our collection points.


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