The struggle of vending industry in healthcare sector
When the second COVID-19 wave hit the country, almost everyone stood for hours in the long queues, trying to secure medicines and other supplies from pharmacies and hospitals. Maintaining the standard social distance of 6 feet between themselves, people were only looking to get medical supplies quickly for their loved ones, while constantly fearing getting contaminated by the deadly virus in the healthcare sectors.
The need for a contactless and quicker mode of both purchasing and paying was felt in the healthcare sector at the prime of the second wave of the pandemic. However, the demand for a system that minimizes human intervention and automates the procurement of medical goods by patients, has been long in the making in the overburdened healthcare sector in India, especially where public healthcare facilities are concerned. The pandemic only exacerbated and brought to the forefront the shortcomings of the prevalent healthcare supply chains.
Now, in this scenario, imagine a technology solution that has been around for decades but has not yet reached its full potential in terms of deployment, particularly in the health sector in India- vending machines. The solution is elegant because it not only increases the touchpoints for the patients to purchase medical supplies, but a “smart ”vending machine can also ensure that the entire transaction is completely contactless and, if need be, cashless – the two buzzwords and imperatives of today’s economy.
Societal implications of using vending machines in public healthcare
As with any other technological intervention in the healthcare sector, the use of vending machines as a solution to overcome the supply chain hassles of the healthcare sector can only be successful if part from providing profitability to the businesses engaged in the supply chains, the solution also confers social benefits to the patients and society at large. Fortunately enough, vending machines fit right into both these parameters.
For retailers of medical supplies, more availability of touchpoints through deployment of vending machines, whether at a public or private healthcare facility, translates to more sales, driving more revenues and subsequently more profitability. For the patients, the benefits go beyond the financial implications. The reduction in waiting time coupled with the cutback in out of pocket expenditure (also incurred due to travelling to the hospital or state pharmacies) more often leads to patients with certain lingering diseases like tuberculosis to complete their course of treatment for which the dropout rate is otherwise extremely high because of the time and financial strain the treatment causes.
Since this also leads to significant savings on public health expenditure by the government, various State governments have been toying with the idea and have deployed automated Medicine Vending Machines (MVM) at state-run hospitals, pharmacies, urban primary health centers and clinics. Pilot projects are underway in Rajasthan (called Swasthya ATMs), Haryana, Tamil Nadu and the national capital (at the Mohalla clinics).
Through the success of these experiments, policy officials have realized that using vending machines to dispense medicines can help in overcoming the staff crunch in state pharmacies while ensuring follow ups with patients who would now only need to meet the doctor after their course of medicine is complete, which can be monitored by compiling data from these smart vending machines. It is for these reasons that many states in India are now gearing up for a full scale launch of automated vending machines to dispense medicines and other supplies in public healthcare facilities by tying up with vending machine businesses across the country through major investments.
Other use cases of vending machines in the healthcare sector
While the dispensation of free medicines at public healthcare facilities provides for the most prominent use case of vending machines in the health sector in India, there are a plethora of other use cases where vending machines can be deployed to actually purchase medicinal supplies. If placed at the strategic locations which we now discuss, the booming vending machine business can benefit not only the producers but also the retailers and consumers of these healthcare supplies.
First aid kits
Our school textbooks have always been filled with the best practices to follow and basic first aid kit to be kept at all times in the face of a sudden and potentially curable injury. However, most people in India follow a reactive approach to healthcare rather than a proactive one and hence, don’t have first aid kits with them readily available to deal with an emergency health situation.
It thus makes eminent sense to have vending machines deployed, at locations susceptible to physical injuries, to dispense general or even specialised first aid kits which people can quickly buy as time is often of essence in such urgent situations. Sports complexes and training academies are the top contenders for installing a vending machine selling basic kits but specialised first aid kit dispensers can also be thought of for installation at swimming pools which require different protective and curative gear than other sports.
First aid kit dispensers can also come in handy at office spaces and educational premises, including hostels, to take care of injuries since such spaces don’t often have a dedicated healthcare facility to tackle sudden injuries or pains. One very strategic location in this vertical can be the highways as they are highly prone to major and minor physical injuries owing to accidents of speeding and collisions.
Face masks and PPE kits
As the entire world scrambled to procure face masks and PPE kits in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, severe shortages of these commodities were witnessed with people standing in queues for hours or even purchasing these supplies in the “black market” for inordinate amounts of money. While the production shortages affected the supply chains and availability of these products in the initial stages of the pandemic, the haywire distribution channels affected the availability of these supplies even during the second wave of the pandemic in India this year.
The lack of adequate number and form (digital, physical and phygital) of purchasing options for these supplies meant that citizens again flocked to the medical stores leading to crowding which worsened the already precarious situation. These dire circumstances motivated the municipalities of metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chandigarh to install vending machines dispensing the basic protective gear against COVID-19 like face masks, hand sanitizer and gloves, enabling people to follow the COVID-19 safety measures in place.
A vending machine operator can consider installing such niche vending machines at the locations which mandate people to have proper protective gear in place for entry or even transit e.g. airports, railway stations, shopping malls, marketplaces, etc. Since most of these essential items are discarded after one time use, the sales generated from repeat purchases can be massive and drive profitability for the vending business.
Over the counter (OTC) medicines
Over the counter (OTC) medicines are those drugs that can be sold to a customer even without a prescription requirement from a healthcare professional. They are safe and can be consumed for minor ailments by following general advice and dosage at the back of their packaging. Because of their efficacy in quickly treating routine illness like headache, indigestion, common cold, etc. these medicines are bought by consumers to get relief from any sudden pains and hence, should be readily available.
As opposed to the vending machines installed in public healthcare facilities, this use case typically requires users to pay for the OTC drugs before they can be dispensed. Since vending machines work 24X7, they can be used by customers to purchase such common medicines when the local pharmacies are closed and can even cater to the remotest of the areas.
There are reports of life-threatening errors made by pharmacists while giving out medicines to customers due to “burnout” owing to overwork. These “pharmacy kiosks” can provide the much needed relief to pharmacists and augment touchpoints for the consumers aiding to their convenience. As these drugs are very frequently consumed by people, the revenues for the vending business can also be hefty.
The prime locations for installing such OTC drugs vending machines are office complexes, residential societies, highways, railway stations, airports, etc because these are the places that provide an opportunity gap in this business as pharmacies are not commonly available but the demand is often huge at these locations.
As opposed to over the counter drugs, prescription medicines are those medicines that can only be purchased by a consumer if a medical doctor has prescribed that drug and only in the quantity which the prescription carries. Since these drugs can cause severe side effects and even lead to antimicrobial resistance among patients, these drugs are only sold in controlled amounts under medical supervision.
In India, such medicines are placed under Schedule H of Drugs and Cosmetics Act and require the pharmacist giving out the medication to note down the date of dispensation on the prescription Furthermore, to prevent misuse, the drugs placed under the Schedule H1 of the same Act require pharmacists to maintain a record of all habit-forming medicines and potent third- and fourth-line antibiotics for at least three years.
Because of such cumbersome processes involved, many pharmacists resort to selling these prescription medicines as over the counter medicine which can have disastrous impact on consumer’s health. Since most of it is only manual work and record-keeping, these tedious processes can very easily be automated by a smart vending machine which can then dispense the prescribed medicines also.
One simple solution is to have verifiable and scannable (through QR code) prescriptions which can be uploaded on the mobile app associated with the smart vending machine. Once the prescription is uploaded and verified, the vending machine can dispense the medicine and record the quantity and time stamp associated with that transaction, thereby fully complying wi the government norms with minimal intervention by pharmacists.
A vending business operator can tie up with hospital chains or big pharmaceutical companies, including online stores like 1mg and Pharmeasy, to provide a phygital solution for selling prescription drugs. The high costs and profit margins accrued from selling prescription drugs can compensate for the opportunity cost associated with limited location options and highly custom-made software development for selling these drugs.
As we have seen in this blog, the utility and scope for smart vending machines in the healthcare sector far outstrips the current deployment levels seen in the industry for this niche area.
Healthcare is an industry where both public and private entities have great and different interests that can be leveraged by vending machine operators to plug the current demand-supply gaps. Smart vending machines can also make predictions/recommendations and even provide epidemiological data by remote monitoring of patients and their treatment course.
At Vendify, we provide an end-to-end automated solution to automate the entire supply chain of a vending machine business. Our solution also comes bundled with a consumer app capable of scanning QR codes and placing an order on the IoT connected vending machine which can be customized to dispense OTC and prescription medicines alike. To find out how Vendify can help you take advantage of the burgeoning opportunities for vending machine business in the healthcare sector, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.