The number of items dispensed from distance-selling pharmacies in England has quadrupled in the five years between 2016 and 2021, official data show.
Figures published in March 2022 by the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) following a freedom of information (FOI) request have revealed that distance-selling pharmacies — which provide pharmacy services at a distance, including over the internet — dispensed 52,930,116 items in 2021, up 301% from the 13,190,131 items dispensed in 2016.
In the same time period, the same data show that the number of items dispensed by all community pharmacy contractors in England increased by just 2.3%, from 1.104 billion items in 2016 to 1.129 billion items in 2021.
In its FOI response, the NHSBSA also noted that distance-selling pharmacies were only recorded in its systems from 2016, “so the numbers for the early months of 2016 are not exhaustive, but just the number that we have recorded”.
The number of items dispensed by distance-selling pharmacies in 2021 was 27% higher than 2020 figures, when the data show that 41,645,236 items were dispensed.
In April 2021, The Pharmaceutical Journal revealed that the number of items dispensed from distance-selling pharmacies in England grew by 45% during 2020, which online pharmacy providers attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, distance-selling pharmacies continue to hold a small share of the overall dispensing market, supplying just under 5% of all items dispensed in the community in 2021.
Despite the General Pharmaceutical Council taking enforcement action against more than 40 online pharmacies between April 2019 and August 2021, the online pharmacy market has continued to grow in recent years.
In March 2021, the community pharmacy sector also expressed concerns around a possible online pharmacy offering from Amazon, which trademarked the term ‘Amazon Pharmacy’ in 2020.
Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, said that while COVID-19 “has obviously encouraged some patients to stay at home and request delivery of their medication, this figure conceals the fact that much of this increase is caused by new openings”.
“The majority of distance-selling pharmacies offer a local service but without the obvious benefits of a full pharmaceutical service, principally patient contact, advice and support.
“During the pandemic, bricks and mortar pharmacies demonstrated resilience and agility and showcased that the healthcare system cannot do without them.”
Jasmine Shah, head of advice and support services at the National Pharmacy Association, said: “Bricks and mortar pharmacies are the beating heart of pharmaceutical care in the community, but there’s also a place for distance-selling pharmacies which are convenient for some people.
“Many of our members now have a brick and clicks offer, so it’s not as clear cut as it used to be. They provide a responsive, personal, face-to-face service in the community while also embracing the convenience of online ordering and digital communication with patients.”