In Southeast Asia, patients visit pharmacies 10 times more often than they visit a physician, according to a recent report developed by the Centre for Impact Investing and Practices (CIIP), Singapore Management University (SMU) and Accenture. In part, this can be attributed to lack of access that many people in the region—especially those in rural areas—have to primary care facilities. However, it also speaks to the deep trust that local pharmacies and pharmacists have built with their communities. Providing a wide range of services, including diagnostics and medicines, pharmacies and pharmacists are foundational social and commercial institutions. This dynamic comes with market-driven advantages, drawbacks and opportunities for improvement that social enterprises can harness.
More than 80% of pharmacies in the region operate independently. While this lack of centralization means that most pharmacies have the flexibility to adjust to local needs, it also comes with a challenge: fragmentation. Across the region, it’s difficult to institute system-wide improvements in the quality, availability and affordability of medicines. This is acutely problematic when widespread health issues emerge that require rapid and coordinated public health responses.
Case study: The opportunities for health in Indonesia
While overall health indicators in Indonesia have improved over the last 25 years in terms of life expectancy, significant health issues remain and are worsening. These issues affect quality of life and often disproportionately impact women and rural communities. According to the World Health Organization (WHO):
- The maternal mortality rate is an average 177 per 100,000 live births and reaches even higher, between 200-700, in areas such as Banten, West Java, East Java, Central Java and North Sumatra.
- It is one of the 10 countries in the world with the highest diabetes burdens in the world, with cardiovascular and related non-communicable disease risks, including hypertension and diabetes, on the rise. An estimated 33.4% of all adults have hypertension, and only one out of three cases is diagnosed.
- An estimated 1 out of every 5 women aged 15-49 has an unmet need for family planning, and this rises to 25% among adolescents aged 15-19. Less than one-third (29%) of all women using contraceptives received comprehensive information on side effects, which results in high discontinuation rates especially for pills and injectables.
These pervasive and expanding health challenges are connected to the uneven distribution of primary healthcare across the country. For example, rural populations must travel for hours to visit the nearest public health facility for care, whereas urban populations have far better access and options.
An increased number of doctor’s offices near rural communities would undoubtedly help, but given the existing infrastructure, pharmacies represent an immediate opportunity to extend care. There are over 30,000 pharmacies in the country, which is where nearly 80% of Indonesia’s population already obtains medicines. If these pharmacies could level up their services, capacity and knowledge sharing, the potential for increased, near-term quality of care is tremendous.
SwipeRx: Equipping pharmacies with what they need to serve their communities
This is where the social enterprise SwipeRx comes in. To meaningfully improve services and the health of communities, pharmacies need greater training, supplies and other creative resources to optimally and meaningfully contribute to primary care across the region. At SwipeRx, we address these issues through a digital platform, which has become the largest community of pharmacy professionals in Southeast Asia. Our single platform now connects over 245,000 pharmacy professionals and students across six countries in the region. One third of all pharmacists in the region are on SwipeRx.
We took learnings from social network methodology and e-commerce and blended them into an all-in-one app for pharmacy professionals, offering accredited professional education, pharmacy-specific news, opportunities for interaction with peers, a drug directory and customized e-referral tools. Our B2B e-commerce platform helps consolidate a purchasing network, ultimately increasing the independent pharmacy’s access to the most affordable and available products. We’ve also added a procurement platform for pharmacists in Indonesia (1 in every 4 pharmacies in Indonesia now use this tool!) and hope to expand this to other countries.
Looking ahead to an even stronger public health impact
All these offerings work to achieve our goal: strengthen and prepare pharmacies to support public health in communities across Southeast Asia.
With a talented team that has grown to over 400 members, we see three areas of opportunity in particular:
- Pharmacy network expansion: increase our network size within countries in Southeast Asia to improve product availability and reduce prices even further.
- Logistics expansion: help build a modern drug supply chain in Southeast Asia that further improves access to even the hardest-to-reach pharmacies. This includes building new cold storage warehouses and scaling up last-mile delivery infrastructure.
- Broadened application of productive debt financing: extend working capital to support our growth and vision for impact.
Above all, we remain focused on improving the quality, affordability and availability of medicines across the region. Our platform and services will continue to enable pharmacists to lead positive health outcomes for their patients communities across Southeast Asia—turning potential into impact.
“Working with the team has allowed us to improve our thoughtfulness of how we create a business where impact outcomes are inextricably linked… the bigger we are as a business, the more impact we achieve.”
SwipeRx received US$27 million Series B funding from MDI Ventures, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Johnson & Johnson Impact Ventures, the Susquehanna International Group and others.