A responsibly managed prescription collection service can deliver healthy benefits both to your customers and your bottom line. Gaelle Walker looks at where to begin

In these challenging times having a large number of strings to your bow has never been more important, and offering meaningful additional services is a great way to get footfall and sales thrumming.

While many retailers are now offering parcel collection, dry-cleaning, or even Click and Collect shopping services, a growing number are also reaping the rewards of a responsibly managed prescription collection service.

When properly executed it’s a service which is highly prized by shoppers - particularly the elderly and those who live in rural areas where public transport is scarce or non-existent.

Rural bus routes were hit hard in 2012, accounting for more than 40% of English councils’ spending cuts, according to the Campaign for Better Transport, while at the same time the independent pharmacy community continued to struggle against the march of the multiples.

It’s a worrying trend that is causing a real headache for the elderly and those without cars, but one which a growing number of professionally minded convenience stores are helping to remedy via partnerships with nearby doctors’ surgeries and pharmacies.

It’s a partnership that is also doing wonders for boosting community spirit, as Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman points out: “Our recent Local Services: Happy Places report showed how communities thrive when there is a diverse mix of local shops and businesses. If retailers can work with other businesses such as pharmacies or doctors, they cement their role in the community and can also open up new income streams. There are great opportunities to be had from linking to neighbouring retailers and offering a broad range of services where they aren’t being provided in the local community.”

One retailer who can attest to the benefits of offering a well-run prescription collection service is Jane Irons, owner of The Village Stores in Great Limber, North Lincolnshire.

After the local bus service was slashed to just one an hour in 2011, rural retailer Jane was approached by the surgery in the neighbouring village of Keelby to offer a prescription collection service.

“At first I was a bit wary, but it’s been a great success,” she explains. “The customers, particularly the elderly ones, are thrilled as it saves them so much time waiting for a bus, or paying for a taxi to pick their medicines up. I would definitely recommend that other convenience stores talk to their doctors or chemists about offering a similar service. Where access is a challenge it can make a real difference to people’s lives, and it is also a powerful footfall driver,” she says.

While the benefits for providing a medicine collection service are certainly sweet, the penalties for poor execution are high. A breach of patient confidentiality, for example, could do serious damage to a store’s good reputation, while the dangers of a medication mix-up don’t bear thinking about.

As the Rural Shops Alliance (RSA’s) chairman Trevor West says: “While the RSA encourages retailers to offer as many services as possible to their customers, in particular the elderly, it is vital that where the dispensing of controlled drugs is concerned, the health of the patient must not be compromised.”

All of the stores that C-Store spoke to had developed a very close working relationship with either their local surgery or pharmacy, and while it is these businesses which take the ultimate responsibility for the services’ management, there are a number of conditions which all involved parties must adhere to under the Medicines (Collection and Delivery Arrangements) Order 1978.

It’s important to note that all of the stores we spoke to only offered the service to patients requiring repeat prescription medication such as asthma inhalers, diabetic medication, HRT or the contraceptive pill. Medicines of a very sensitive, or valuable nature, or those that needed to be refrigerated, tended to be avoided.

So where to start? Well, before you even think about approaching your nearest surgery or pharmacy, you need to be sure that your store has a secure area where medication awaiting collection can be safely locked away and not accessed by members of the public.

Patient confidentiality is the next most important element to consider. Any system that you put in place must ensure that it is protected at all costs, as chair of the British Medical Association’s prescribing committee Dr Bill Beeby explains. “Pharmacists, surgery staff and retailers have a duty to respect and protect the confidentiality of any information acquired in the course of their professional activities relating to an individual,” he tells C-Store.

Confidential information includes personal details such as the patient’s name and address, and details of their medication, both prescribed and non-prescribed. “A breach of confidentiality could prove deeply upsetting for the patient involved, and would not be at all good for your store’s reputation,” Dr Beeby adds.

The Medicines (Collection and Delivery Arrangements) Order 1978 advises that a “secure receptacle” is used to collect prescriptions, and that dispensed medicines are packaged “so that only details of the patient’s name and address are visible on the outside”.

This is exactly what happens in Jane’s store, where prepared bags of medication are delivered sealed, with only the customers’ name and address visible. “We have no idea what the bags contain as everything is managed by the surgery staff who also drop them into us,” she explains.

Systems also need to be in place to ensure that dispensed medicines are only ever handed out to the correct customer, or their registered carer.

The Order states that “records should be kept of each prescription collected and each dispensed medicine supplied, and that whenever possible a signature should be obtained to indicate the safe delivery of the medicines to the patient or their carer.”

At Barns Green Village Stores in West Sussex, retailer Pippa Heritage demands that all customers sign a form confirming the date and time at which they picked up their medication. “At the end of each week we return all of these forms, along with any bags of medication that weren’t collected, to the surgery,” she explains. Shoppers who would like to make use of the service are also required to clear it with the doctors’ surgery first, and sign a consent form, which is available from the surgery.

Pippa or her husband David visit the nearby town of Billingshurst to do their banking twice a week and pick up the prepared bags of medication en route. Goods, which have to be paid for in advance via the surgery, are then stored in a locked cupboard in the stockroom. “We had to notify our insurance company that we were planning to offer this new service,” Pippa explains, “but fortunately it didn’t add any extra cost to our policy.”

Just as with Jane’s store, Pippa’s service does not cover controlled drugs or items that require refrigeration. Even so, the high value of prescription drugs to the illicit market means that the pair take extra precautions when driving to and from the surgery with medication in tow.

“It was risky enough driving to and from Billingshurst to do all the banking twice a week, and now that we have a car-load of medication, too, we have to be extra careful. We take care to go at different times of the day and use different cars,” Pippa continues.

However, she’s adamant that it’s more than worth the risk. “Local people are thrilled with the service. It’s made such a difference to so many of them, and particularly the elderly who were finding it so challenging getting to the town and back without the bus. It cost us just an extra five minutes of our time, which is nothing when you consider the good it does. It’s also better for the environment as it saves on all those extra taxi and car journeys, plus it also boosts our footfall, which is always good.”•

The next step

In Blackthorn, Northampton, Londis Latestore owner Atul Karavadra is celebrating much healthier sales after opening a small pharmacy inside his store.

“The nearest pharmacy is a couple of miles away from us and over the years we’d noticed customers moaning about it not being very convenient to get to,” Atul explains. So, as part of a business review last year, Atul decided to replace the store’s bake-off with an in-store pharmacy which would be managed by an independent company.

“A pharmacy needs to be secure so we enclosed the area that used to be the bake-off, before letting it out,” Atul explains. The store was also re-merchandised so that health and beauty products were positioned close to the pharmacy counter. “It’s been a huge success,” Atul adds. “Customers, particularly the elderly and parents with young children, are thrilled as having the pharmacy inside the store is so much more convenient for them.”

As footfall boosters go, the in-store pharmacy has been pretty epic. General store sales have increased by £700 a week since it opened, and Atul expects that figure to keep on rising over the winter months. “I’m also saving money, as with the bake-off gone I now have two fewer staff to pay, plus I’m getting rent for the space. It’s been one of the best business decisions we’ve ever made, and a win-win for everybody.”