Patients in Japan have easier access to virtual pharmacist consultations

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A pharmacist provides an explanation to a patient online regarding how to take their prescription medication at a Nihon Chouzai pharmacy in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo.

Services where pharmacists can speak with patients online and provide them with instructions on how to take their prescriptions have been gaining attention as patients can now receive their medications through the mail. Such virtual services are popular among those who want to avoid going outside as a result of the pandemic or who do not have time to go to the pharmacy.

A 58-year-old Saitama woman who suffers from rheumatism has been using the service since the spring. She visits a hospital two hours away and used to pick up her prescription at a pharmacy near there. The medicine must be refrigerated, and the ice packs are heavy. She also wanted to avoid being outside for long periods due to her compromised immune system.

“At the pharmacy, I’m aware of the people behind me who are waiting, but at home, I can ask the pharmacist questions without worrying about that,” she said. “Since my prescription is sent to my house, I don’t have to bring back a lot of medications, so that’s also convenient.”

Previously, the online services were only allowed for virtual medical examinations or examinations at home, and only if the first consultation was done in person. In March, however, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry allowed online consultations for prescription administration instructions, including the first consultation depending on the pharmacist’s approval, regardless of how a patient receives medical care.

Tokyo-based dispensing pharmacy company Nihon Chouzai Co. has been providing virtual medication administration instructions since September 2020. After seeing a doctor at a hospital, patients reserve a time slot to speak to a pharmacist online to receive an explanation on how to take their medications. Prescriptions are delivered from the hospitals to pharmacies.

Ain Holdings Inc., the Hokkaido-based operator of Ain pharmacies, has been providing its virtual service since 2020 as well. In February, the company launched a texting chat service in which patients can easily ask their questions to a pharmacist.

There are services in which the process for patients to receive medical care, have their medications explained and get them delivered can all be done through a smartphone. Patients sign up through apps such as “Sokuyaku” and “Clinics,” and make an appointment. Medical examinations, medication consultations, deliveries and payments are all handled through such apps.

Convenient pick-up

There are various ways in which patients can receive their prescriptions. In May, convenience store operator FamilyMart Co. launched a service that enables their customers to pick up their medications at one of the about 2,400 FamilyMart stores in Tokyo. The prescriptions will arrive at a specified FamilyMart as early as one day after the patient receives an explanation from a pharmacist at a partner pharmacy, so the patient can receive their medication in a timely manner.

“Receiving online medication instructions is convenient for people who are busy or are afraid of becoming infected, but it could be less informative compared to an in-person consultation,” said physician Yuma Mori. “I hope those that use the virtual service will actively ask questions and express their concerns to the pharmacist.”