How to build trust in your digital pharmacy

The popularity of digital pharmacies has seen steady growth over the last 20 years. And with the pressing need to tackle the major challenge of healthcare accessibility the sector has a key role to play in the UK’s healthcare landscape in the years ahead. But with a recent slowdown in growth and reputation clouds horizon, how can online pharmacies build trust in the business with the audiences that matter? 

The sector landscape

The pharmacy sector as a whole is facing major headwinds. A report by the Pharmaceutical Journal in August last year found that the number of full-time equivalent pharmacists has decreased by 13% since 2021 taking the overall number of pharmacists in post back to levels last seen in 2018. 

More recently, analysis in May from the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) warned of ‘skyrocketing’ pharmacy closures this year – at a rate almost 50% higher than this time last year. The UK has lost more than 1400 pharmacies since 2016, with 177 closed in the first four months of 2024 alone. 

Broader access to healthcare continues to be a tough nut to crack and with record NHS waiting lists, GP oversubscription and the continued decline of high street pharmacies, online pharmacies are well placed to rectify inequality in access to these services, particularly in rural and deprived parts of the country. 

The number of online pharmacies in the UK has been growing steadily over the last few decades and experienced a boom during the Covid pandemic with the number of people nominating digital pharmacies as their chosen pharmacy almost doubling between March 2020 and March 2022. But growth has since significantly slowed, increasing by only 4% in the last two years. 

So, what’s going on? 

Sector challenges

A series of reputational challenges have buffeted the sector in the last two years. An investigation by the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) in 2023 found that 73% of online pharmacies were breaching their NHS contracts by only operating within small geographical areas. The CCA subsequently called for those failing to meet contractual requirements to have their contracts revoked. 

National media have shown a growing interest in issues with a direct impact on trust and reputation for online pharmacies. A BBC investigation in January found that 20 online pharmacies were selling restricted drugs to customers without proper checks such as GP approval.  

A Times investigation meanwhile suggested that the UK’s largest online pharmacy, Pharmacy2U, was making it too easy for people to be signed of work sick in a report that attracted comment and criticism from political stakeholders in Westminster. 

These reputational challenges run the risk of, fairly or unfairly, tainting by association all businesses operating within the sector. So, there’s a pressing need for online pharmacies to be proactive about protecting their reputation and building trust with key audiences, from customers to regulators. 

Here, we outline three ways to achieve this with the support of a coherent communications strategy. 

Have a clear, authentic set of messages

Having a well-defined, easily understood story to communicate to your audiences is crucial. Stories are the cornerstone of communication and are a powerful way of developing a human connection that engages audiences and builds resonance and trust. 

Digital pharmacies should begin with the fundamental question: “what are the key things we want our stakeholders to know and understand about our business?”. 

A prudent starting point is to craft your business’ vision, mission and values statements which can sit prominently on your website. These define: why your business exists and what your long-term aspirations are; what your business seeks to do; and the values that guide how you operate. 

Your vision, mission and values are your communications ‘north star’ from which your communications and PR strategy flows. They distil succinctly to your audiences the key fundamentals of who you are and are also a powerful tool for bringing together internal stakeholders around a singular vision that can drive the business forward. 

Be transparent and tell your story proactively

Once you have defined the story you want to tell, it’s important to get on the front foot and deliver those messages to your audiences proactively and transparently. A credible sense of transparency is essential in building trust. The more stakeholders hear from your business and its key spokespeople the deeper the understanding they will have of who you are. 

A proactive media strategy encompassing a range of tactics – from compelling thought leadership and commentary on sector issues to regular news ‘moments’ – will deliver real benefits for raising awareness of your brand and the values that drive your business. 

This kind of media relations work provides regular touch points for your audiences and will help to lift the veil on your digital pharmacy business and increase familiarity. For the online pharmacy sector in particular, much criticism has been levelled over a perceived lack of oversight and robust regulatory checks. So, that willingness to be open about the business and tell your story though proactive media engagement can go a long way to tackling these concerns head on. 

Leverage the customers you serve

Case studies and testimonials from customers who have used your services to their benefit are a tremendously effective and direct way of addressing concerns about the sector and showcasing the value your business delivers. 

The use of previous customers in this way is a powerful form of social proof, leveraging a ‘show don’t tell’ approach in a way that is authoritative and authentically human. 

Businesses should be proactive about gathering this kind of feedback from customers and finding creative ways of deploying them. Some case studies, particularly those with that strong human interest thread running through them, will have particular appeal to media and drive great coverage for your business. 

Criticisms of the digital pharmacy sector are unlikely to go away of their own accord. Given the challenging landscape for the sector it’s crucial that businesses operating in this space take a proactive approach to addressing these criticisms directly and communicating with their stakeholders in a way that builds trust with audiences and protects their reputation for the long term. 

Get in touch if you’d like to discuss how The PHA Group can support your digital pharmacy business to build trust with the audiences that matter. 

Get in touch with the team