Why Richard Branson Needs More Patient Commando

Richard Branson recently joined a growing group of venture capitalists investing in online pharmacies. The one he chose is from New York City called Capsule, and as he explains they are “tackling the consumer pharmacy experience from the ground up.”

From Branson’s blog post about Capsule:

It is no secret that going to the pharmacy is painful. Customers can wait on average an hour or more, almost half the time the pharmacy is out of stock, and there are unexpected costs. Add the embarrassing interactions with staff without a private place to discuss your medications with a pharmacist. Customers go to the pharmacy once a month but take medication every day. It is the most frequent healthcare experience and if it is fundamentally improved then the entire system will benefit.

Capsule removes the aisles of sweets, fizzy drinks and greeting cards and focuses on prescriptions. They swap expensive retail rent for delivery, and they’re building the first brand to engender emotions in the space and to retain customers and drive better health outcomes.

His description of a pharmacy reads like an infomercial showing someone cutting tomatoes just before they’re enlightened by the magic of slap chop. Many new online pharmacy start-ups are telling us the same, that they are changing the game and revolutionizing pharmacy with a brand new online customer experience. The problem is that they’ve all taken the same approach as pharmacies of old; they continue to view patients as prospects. Capsule has become essentially the virgin mobile of pharmacies; their website offering to customers “prescription delivery, smart refills, and love.” We have a hard time seeing how treating patients like adolescents signing up for a new cell phone is going to drive better health outcomes.

Health tech is an industry with tonnes of potential for patients, and there’s also nothing wrong with some good old customer service. But we can’t really be expected to believe that an online shopping, tracking and delivery service is revolutionary. Patients aren’t trying to cut tomatoes or someone phoning in to bump up their data usage for the month. We see patients as the individual who cares less about hearing that the pharmacy ‘loves them,’ and more about having access to the medication they need to stay alive. Someone who cares more about a family member’s ability to get treatment than the branding on a pharmacy bag. These values should be as important to healthcare providers as they are patients, and we think they should actually be empowered in the place where money and health care intersect; a pharmacy.

The value proposition of Capsule and other online pharmacies like Alto, PillPack, Round Refill and many alike, are noble in their self-prescribed value for customer service, but that’s about the extent of it. Patients need to be the ones who dictate what a “patients-first experience” means. We think they need to be more than prospective customers in the healthcare system. That’s why they are our partners.

At the very least, Capsule pharmacy may want to include patients in planning their next marketing campaign, New Yorkers didn’t “love” their first one.

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