online clinics

The doctor will Zoom you now: Are online clinics the future of healthcare?

Social distancing has changed the way the world seeks medical treatment - perhaps for good.

For most of us, the route to medical treatment has always been fairly straight forward. You feel ill, you book an appointment with your local GP, you pick up whatever drugs are prescribed from your nearest chemist. Until, of course, the coronavirus pandemic enforced lockdowns, social distancing and a certain unease about visiting any form of physical healthcare setting unless absolutely necessary.

UK A&E visits in April 2020 were down 57% year-on-year while GPs reported appointment decreases of around 30-40% – with more than half of patients opting for phone appointments rather than face-to-face meetings. These are, of course, extraordinary circumstances but, as those of us who have struggled to get a doctor’s appointment in the past will know, just because people aren’t visiting their GP doesn’t mean they are not getting sick. So where are all these potential patients turning to for medical help? Step in the online clinic.

In 2016 the online pharmacy market was worth $33.06 billion – a figure expected to rise to just shy of $38 billion by 2025. This may sound like a startling figure to those of us in the UK used to seeking treatment via more traditional means (and the term is, admittedly, broad encompassing everything from over-the-counter drugs to beauty products) but online pharmacies are a mainstay of healthcare systems like those in the US which rely heavily on insurance and private services. However, the direct-to-consumer prescription and drugs market is growing rapidly in the UK and, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, could be the future of the industry.

sokratis papafloratos
Sokratis Papafloratos

Right now the number of online clinics licensed to dispense prescriptions and medications in the UK is fairly limited – both in number and in scope. Most focus on easily diagnosable, recurring or intimate problems, such as sexual health, hair loss, travel medication and help quitting smoking. Numan, an online clinic founded by entrepreneur Sokratis Papafloratos specifically to address male health concerns, is one such enterprise. It counts surgeons, medical doctors, psychologists and pharmacists among its experts and offers consultations, blood tests and supplements alongside treatments for erectile dysfunction, hair loss and other ailments.

“These are conditions that affect a lot of men, but they are still considered taboo,” explains Papafloratos of the company’s focus. “Erectile dysfunction is a problem that you can’t deny exists, but many men deny themselves the solution. We started with these conditions because we can provide safe solutions to them and can use them as the first onboarding step on the path to better health.”

"There will always be a place for the traditional community pharmacy and GP"

A serial entrepreneur, whose previous ventures have included co-founding travel firm Secret Escapes and the phenomenally successful mental health app Calm, Papafloratos explains that he stepped into the direct-to-consumer pharmaceuticals market after experiencing concerns about his own health. “You stop feeling invincible after your 20s/early 30s and you realise that you have to invest time in your health and wellbeing,” he explains. “I’ve also had personal experiences with men in my family who were terrible at taking care of themselves. I wanted to change that.”

Numan’s decision to target men specifically, however, is grounded in more than just personal experience. Across the board men are likely to drink and smoke more and die earlier than women. They are also twice as likely to have a heart attack and three times more likely to commit suicide. The reasons for these statistics are, of course, vastly complicated and vary across age range, ethnicity and social factors but it is well documented that men in general are less likely to engage with healthcare services than women. Which is where Papafloratos hopes services like Numan can step in to help.

doctor with phone

“We give men simple and accessible solutions for their health and wellbeing problems,” he says. “People are becoming increasingly comfortable doing all sorts of things online, and that includes buying prescription medicine and engaging with a doctor – especially after Covid-19. The pandemic is accelerating acceptance of digital health. We’re seeing changes that would have taken years become effective in a matter of weeks. I believe the pandemic will really motivate people to become more proactive about their health and take action.”

Of course one factor of the UK health system that was clear even before the pandemic was the degree to which the NHS was overburdened. And, while private services such as Numan may not be affordable for all, Papafloratos does hope they relieve some of the pressure.

“There will always be a place for the traditional community pharmacy and GP,” he says. “Digital, private healthcare can lift overall public health, alleviate cost pressures from the NHS and empower people to make better decisions around their health and wellbeing. More and more people want to be more involved in their choices around healthcare and we can help them do that, complementing the fantastic service provided by the NHS.”

"You stop feeling invincible after your 20s/early 30s and you realise that you have to invest time in your health and wellbeing"

So for those who are thinking about seeking medical help online, how can you be sure the medicine and advice you’re getting is trustworthy? Firstly, make sure the website you’re thinking about purchasing from displays the green MHRA logo, which also gives details on which services a company is legally allowed to offer. Any website offering doctor consultations should also be registered with the Care Quality Commission and have this information prominently displayed. As usual with the internet, if the prices seem too good to be true, they probably are.

So, with the online pharmacy market only set to grow, where does Papafloratos hope to see Numan in ten years’ time? “I’d like us to have made a difference on how people perceive healthcare,” he says. “We’ve set ourselves a goal of helping 10 million customers in the next 10 years. It’s a very ambitious goal, but one that gets everyone excited about work every morning.”

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