PARIS — As pharmacists look to the future, the first thing they should bear in mind is that the health market is growing as it never has before. But it's also just as true that consumer habits are changing. People are better informed, more demanding and more prone to self-medication. All of those are things the sector needs to take into account.
But research has also shown that consumers, despite their tendency to seek answers on the Internet, need more advice than ever before. That's a function that local shops, including pharmacies, will continue to provide, especially in rural areas, where the number of doctors falls even as the population ages. At the same time, there are ways in which the pharmacy sector can and needs to innovate, as evidenced by the rise of digital health tools and connected objects.
We still need traditional pharmacies. But do we need as many? Could we do with just half of them? Perhaps. But wouldn't that affect the accessibility of health services? Perhaps not.
In France, reducing the number of gas stations from 40,000 in 1980 to about 10,000 today has not led to more dry tanks. That's because engine innovation continued to develop, the network of gas stations reorganized and costs dropped.
Technology, likewise, will invariably change the way we experience health care. It's already perfectly feasible to imagine a doctor sending a patient’s prescription directly to an Amazon-like service that would then deliver the medication — right to the person's doorstep — in under an hour. What’s more, the delivery person could very well be a pharmacist who would sit down for a few minutes with the patient to explain the instructions and doses.
That is the real challenger to the traditional pharmacy. Amazon is certainly one of the best performing logistics organizations at the moment. Pharmacists need to understand that their added value is the service and not the medication itself. Otherwise, they too would be mere distributors.
The pharmacy sector's best shot at evolving with the times, in other words, is to become the Amazon of local health services. By using its expertise while pairing its services to those of other health workers — from opticians and nurses to physiotherapists and medical laboratories — it will become the prerequisite, the health hub, similar to what Amazon has become for culture-related products.
Such a move would be sure to preempt the “connected health” market. Companies such as Apple, Nike or Jawbones have taken advantage of a market vacuum to provide these services — with no competence whatsoever. Users would no doubt be better served by a local health service that could provide targeted and more expert advice.
Pharmacies as we know them have credibility and unmatched experience. People trust them. And that's a huge advantage, one that rivals can't touch. In an ever growing health market, it’s imperative that pharmacists provoke rather than shy away from the competition. They need to give their creativity and entrepreneurial spirit free rein.
Let's encourage them, in other words, to strike and rebel! Not so that they can keep their little businesses unspoild and unaltered, but so that embrace the freedom to expand and prosper.
*Xavier Pavie is professor at the ESSEC Business School