The Covid-19 crisis has taken Australia’s pharmacy sector on a roller coaster ride in recent months with no one able to say for sure what the future of the industry will look like. However what is almost certain is that pharmacy will not simply go ‘back to normal’ once the coronavirus pandemic is declared contained. Far from it.
For this country and many others in the developed world, the coronavirus crisis has revealed glaring gaps in our supply chain in areas that the population can least afford – medical being the most critical of these. In the past few months we’ve discovered around 70-80 per cent of basic but crucial front-line PPE is manufactured overseas, in regions most affected by the coronavirus. These are regions that temporarily shut down manufacturing in March and have only recently turned production lines back on again. The pandemic has also highlighted that the lion’s share of our medication also comes from overseas and very little is manufactured onshore.
While it seems we’ve managed to avoid any large scale medicine shortages to date, it was close; unsettlingly close to becoming a crisis in its own right.
So where to from here?
Drugs made in Australia?
The federal government has recently formed a post-Covid 19 taskforce, chaired by former Fortescue Metals Chief Executive Nev Power and charged with kick-starting the Australian economy out of its current hibernation once the green light is given. The aim of the Covid-19 Coordination Committee will be to facilitate the rebuilding of Australia’s manufacturing sector to ensure we never again experience the hair-raising gaps in supply we’ve seen over the past three months.
This committee is already working with engine part manufacturers, distilleries, clothing manufacturers, sheet metal fabricators and industrial chemical factories to re-configure production lines and start manufacturing the goods in highest demand – particularly for fields of medicine.
Early in April it was announced that Medicines Australia (MA) and the Generic and Biosimilar Medicines Association (GBMA) had been granted interim permission by the ACCC to share information and resources as part of a joint task-force designed to fortify and sure-up Australia’s medicines stockpile. MA represents the ‘discovery-driven’ pharmaceutical industry in Australia, while GBMA represents the manufacturers of generic medicines.
The MA/GBMA working group is now working to establish the current state of play when it comes to overseas drug supply channels as well as identify, “… opportunities to increase domestic manufacturing and sharing of resources between (some or all) members of the MA/GBMA Working Group.”
This new shift in political, and industry, attitude could see the fostering of a pharmaceutical mass-manufacturing industry on Australian soil. The obvious question is, how would a local drug manufacturing industry compete with that of countries with a ready supply of cheap labour and materials? Could it even get off the ground or would a degree of government intervention be needed?
In the aftermath of the pandemic, the Made-in-Australia label will no doubt attract more consumer dollars than ever before, but will that translate to medicine? Will Australian consumers pay more for the kangaroo tick or will the government step in to protect the commercial viability of a fledgling industry crucial to the future health of the nation? Time will tell.
Are old paper scripts a thing of the past?
The federal Department of Health is working double time, alongside specialist medical software developers, to role out e-prescribing to as much as 80 per cent of the country’s prescribers and pharmacies by end of May this year. The view is to have 100 per cent hooked up to the e-prescribing network before the year is out. When fully implemented, in conjunction with home delivery, e-prescribing will reduce the need for people, especially the vulnerable, to physically enter a pharmacy to present their paper script for filling.
This has obvious health benefits for vulnerable patients both during a pandemic as well as during a normal flu season. Staff in pharmacies will also benefit from less personal contact with customers. However it does present a challenge to pharmacies who relay heavily on the discretionary spending of their customers. Bottom lines will no doubt be affected by a reduction in foot traffic through the door and past shelves full of product. It may be time for some pharmacies to rethink their current business model and work towards ….
Tapping new streams of income
The surge in demand for immunity-boosting vitamins and other non-prescription supplements in the past three months is testament to the public’s acceptance of, and appetite for, whole-body health solutions that are tailored to individual health needs. While acceptance of disease-specific, targeted medication remains widely accepted by the majority, the importance of whole-of-body health in combatting disease is becoming more and more mainstream. In the U.S., sales of vitamins and health supplements jumped 23 per cent in just one week during March – tangible and fiscal evidence that many people want to be in charge of their own health.
Other niche areas of pharmacology, such as compounded personalised medicine, have also experienced a surge in demand since the first recorded case of Covid in Australia in late January. When some medicines became unavailable compounding pharmacies stepped in to fill the gap, saving a lot of patients a nervous wait and helping them maintain their medication plan.
Most compounding pharmacies do not have a prominent brand position in the market place, or even a conspicuous shop front, and most community pharmacies do not have specialist compounding facilities behind their counters, so the opportunities for the two closely related sectors to partner-up are many. And mutually beneficial.
Community pharmacies who establish partnerships with compounding pharmacies can ensure they have a seamless, no-delay, supply of medicines should they experience shortages in the future. The ability to fill compounding scripts quickly is a good selling point and will help community pharmacies attract new niche markets. It will also help promote customer loyalty.
National Custom Compounding has developed a Partner Pharmacy Program aimed at helping community pharmacies tap into and leverage the compounded medication market – a market that is sure to expand in the coming months and years. For more information, visit our website, call us on 1300 731 755 or send a message to [email protected].