Just as more people are turning to online grocery shopping to get their necessities while adhering to stay-at-home and social distancing recommendations, more people are also turning to digital pharmacies in order to get their medications. One such pharmacy is Capsule, which was founded in 2015 and launched in May 2016 to serve the New York City area. Capsule offers free same-day delivery of medications, accepts all insurance, and also offers consultations with pharmacists via calls or online chats.
To see how the digital pharmacy was handling the pandemic as it serves perhaps the hardest hit city in the world, PM360 spoke with Founder & CEO Eric Kinariwala, who also discussed how the pharmacy is working with other healthcare stakeholders to further help patients and some of the potential long-term ramifications of COVID-19.
PM360: As an digital pharmacy, have you seen an increase in traffic or prescription fills as people are under stay-at-home orders in New York?
Eric Kinariwala: We have absolutely seen an uptick. We’ve seen pretty strong demand from both our existing customer base making sure that they have a safe way to get adequate supplies of their medication on an ongoing basis, and we’re also seeing a pretty big surge in inbound interest across the spectrum. Certainly from new customers, but also from doctors, hospitals, insurers, and local government on how medication delivery can really be an essential tool in helping contain the outbreak.
I think that’s super important, because on the one hand there’s a lot of pretty aggressive measures in place to socially distance, but there’s also concurrent guidance from the CDC and local and state governments to make sure you have two to four weeks of medication on hand. And the bridge between those two important guidances is medication delivery, as it is a way to make sure people are staying safe, staying healthy, and staying at home, but they’re continuing to get the medications they need without having to congregate in physical pharmacies where there may be a risk of increased infection.
Given you are seeing an increase in demand, is that impacting your ability to get any certain medication prescriptions filled? Have you seen any shortages or experiences any other disruptions in the supply chain?
We’re not seeing anything crazy in the supply chain. We’re stocked, fulfilling orders, and getting people the medications they need. There’s been a bunch of news around two specific drugs, hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, two historically anti-malarial drugs that are also used for lupus and a couple of other things. But there’s been a lot of uncertainty around whether it’s an effective treatment for COVID, if the FDA is going to approve it for off-label use, should we use it prophylactically, and all of these things. But you’ve now seen a number of state boards of pharmacy issue very clear guidance on what pharmacies should be doing in terms of dispensing those drugs. That’s because there is not enough supply of those two drugs in the supply chain at this moment to serve what the prospective demand for those might have been. So there’s broad consensus that they’re not going to allow that drug to be used outside of specific instances in order to curb the demand a bit. But other than that, we’re not seeing anything in the supply chain that would be concerning to us.
How are you as a company handling the surge? Have you needed to take on additional employees?
We’ve been hiring aggressively and building capacity for the business so we can keep serving the community and all New Yorkers. Our team is on the front lines and this is an absolutely essential part of the healthcare infrastructure of New York, so we have been doing a number of things to ramp up capacity and bring new folks on board across all parts of the business. For instance, there’s a lot of people that are being laid off or furloughed from technology companies, restaurants, hospitality, and even from other pharmacies, and we are bringing them on to help during this time.
In addition to just bringing on new staff, has your company needed to change how it operates in other ways?
Yes, there are a number of other things we have done. One is we took everybody that could work remotely, and asked them to work remotely. While that is obviously now mandated, we did it well before it was required. We also started contact-less deliveries with our couriers when they drop off medications. And we put in place additional safety protocols inside of our pharmacy to make sure the team there stays safe and healthy as they do the essential healthcare work. We’ve mirrored what large hospitals and healthcare institutions in the city are doing to keep their employees safe and healthy.
How are you working with other stakeholders in the healthcare system at this time to ensure you are all better able to serve patients?
When we started Capsule, we made sure to build out a robust technology platform that enables us to quickly partner with a variety of stakeholders in the healthcare system, whether that’s insurers, doctors, hospitals, or drug companies. That’s because when I decided to start the business in the first place, we identified two big pain points in the industry.
One is that the consumer experience is terrible. It hasn’t changed in 50 years. I like to believe that at Capsule we’ve built an experience that is 10 times better than what exists out there. And at least in the consumer reviews and the way people talk about their emotional love for Capsule, I think that is a sign we have achieved that.
The second insight was that every healthcare stakeholder needs a channel partner in the pharmacy to be successful in their own objective. Whether you’re an insurance company responsible for paying the cost of these medications, a drug company looking to educate people about the novel therapies that you’ve developed, or a doctor who is being increasingly compensated based on the outcome that your patients have in a value-based healthcare world—all of those things require patient engagement at a frequent cadence. And our technology platform enables us to harness that natural consumer engagement to help all of those stakeholders be successful with the objectives they need.
I believe fundamentally the pharmacy and the pharmacist should be the quarterback of the healthcare system, because every stakeholder involved in healthcare ultimately uses the pharmacy. And we believe we have the ability to bring those people together and to enable them to be successful both financially and clinically.
And now COVID has put the pharmacy and the healthcare system as a whole under a spotlight. What we’re seeing is tremendous interest from all parts of the healthcare system to partner with Capsule to be able to help a wide variety of populations to solve a wide variety of problems.
In terms of those various healthcare stakeholders, how are you able to specifically help pharma companies or what interest have you seen from them in wanting to partner with you?
In general, one of the biggest opportunities is around education. There’s very clear data that suggests that when people understand what a medication does, how it works, and how it impacts their bodies, they’re more likely to take it. But there’s a big gap in a drug company’s ability to educate consumers about the therapies that they’re developing and how to engage the consumer in the right way at the right time in a way that’s not marketing—something that’s not spammy, but helpful to consumers at the right moment. I’d say that’s one powerful opportunity, and we are not only doing that with pharma companies, but also hospitals and health systems as well.
What kind of impact do you expect COVID-19 to have on your industry and healthcare in general in the long term?
Long term my expectation is that people’s willingness to try and engage with their healthcare digitally is going to be materially different post COVID. A lot of people for the first time ever are being exposed to telehealth, to digital pharmacy, to a number of things that they may not have been as willing to try pre-COVID that they are now either by necessity or by just being more open to trying new things right now. So I think you’re going to see a material shift in consumer behavior towards things like the digital pharmacy and telehealth, and I think that shift will be sustained even as we come through this crisis.