What does the rise of trendy online pharmacies mean for our healthcare systems?

By Shira Jeczmien

Updated May 16, 2020 at 11:21 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

You could just as well be browsing Glossier or even the uncomfortably cool new paint brand Backdrop’s website, only this time, it’s Hims. The websites all look relatively the same; pastel backgrounds, plants dotted around the foyer, happy people from diverse backgrounds looking incredibly healthy with shimmering skin and pleasantly white teeth, and a bold, black Helvetica-esque font. Hims is no different. Except that instead of selling consumer goods, Hims is part of a new generation of online pharmacies that prescribe, produce and ship medication that loosely falls under the category of ‘well-being’.

Hims specialises in men’s health, with four categories under its belt: treating erectile dysfunction, hair loss, skin and what it calls ‘Vitals’ which are coloured gummy bears that supposedly help sleep, immunity, heart and biotin. Now what’s especially interesting about Hims, and its lesser cool classmates Lemonade and Roman for men, and The Pill Club, Maven and Nurx for women, is that they don’t only prescribe medication digitally through a network of doctors that use texts, calls and video consultations, but that they also produce their own brand pills.  

Follicly challenged? No problem. Hims has a solution. “Hands want something to run through. The wind needs something to mess up. Graciously oblige by doing what you need to do to keep your hair on your head. 💁‍♂️”. Emoji included. Having problems performing down there? “This one is simple. You need erections when you want them, not when it’s convenient for your penis. 🍆” Is Hims’ solution. What Hims and its peers are doing is changing how we interact with what are essentially major medications and making it feel, sound and look like you’re simply purchasing a consumer good. The process of purchasing a Hims’ own version of Viagra differs only slightly from buying lip gloss on Glossier.

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Now if you look a little deeper into the rise of these companies, you’ll notice that they’ve all been founded relatively around the same time. This isn’t necessarily attributed to a growth in demand for these products or perhaps a movement that has broken the taboo of speaking loudly about erectile dysfunction, hair loss and empowered birth control. Instead, this trend has a direct link to the legality of these medications, namely the expiration of patents. For example, birth control websites surged in 2014 after Bayer Pharmaceuticals’ patent for Yaz, an oral contraceptive pill for women and one of the world’s most demanded, expired on April 30, 2014.

Similarly, the rise in medication for erectile dysfunction began in 2017, after “a deal between Pfizer and Teva Pharmaceuticals meant Viagra went generic after it was announced that the patent for company’s main competitor in erectile dysfunction market, Cialis, was set to expire in late 2017.” As reported by The Outline.

O.K., so there is an upside to the trend of these consumer-oriented digital pharmacies, and that’s their supposed democratisation of drugs that have otherwise been held by giant pharmas under strict patent laws. They are also making generally unspoken medical issues more approachable; Hims’ giant campaign across New York City last year comes to mind, although it still used a droopy cactus vs. a perky cactus to talk about penises, but I’ll take it.

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At the same time however, what Hims and its friends are doing is removing the consumption of medication from its inescapable link to doctors, medicine and science, which risks inflating the number of people under medication and even self-medicating for conditions that could have different solutions, such as better diet, lifestyle change or psychological support.

Let’s not forget that Hims is a private startup, and seriously VC funded. It is deploying a genius marketing strategy because it’s run by young startup founders thirsty for their exit break and hungry investors eager to triple their pennies. With that in mind, the comforting support Hims claims to give its customers comes with Facebook social plugins and tracking pixels, that then feed back to what Facebook advertises to anyone browsing on its website, as reported by The Outline. Needless to say, its consultation strategy is a long way away from the private room of a doctor. 

So beyond the pastels, smiley faces, cacti and the pseudo democratisation of medication, these pharmacies are just another way of getting you hooked on medication that you don’t know enough about to pop with such ease. Just saying.

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