CEO talks: Interview with the the CEO for Aster Pharmacy

February 14, 2022 | By Zubina Ahmed

As consumers continue to prioritize their health and wellness, retail pharmacy chains have grown exponentially over the years. The Global Pharmacy Retail Market is estimated at  $575.12 Billion in the year 2020. It is anticipated to grow at an increased rate due to the pandemic and the rising chronic diseases worldwide along with intense competition among the market players. Changing disease profiles, innovative marketing strategies, introduction of new business models and upsurge in the hospital based pharmacies has been anticipated to propel thrust in the sales of pharmaceutical retail in the future. Recognised today as the region’s leading pharmacy retail chain,  has dotted the GCC healthcare landscape with over 200 pharmacies since 1987. “ The Aster conglomerate that exists today is the brainchild of our chairman Dr. Azad Moopen who started with a single clinic facility in 1987. Our first pharmacy came later in 1989. Since then it’s been a massive growth for the pharmacy business and the hospitals, said N. S. Balasubramanian, the CEO for Aster Pharmacy Retail in UAE. 

Built on more than two  decades of experience in pharmaceutical retailing, Aster Pharmacy is a part of the Aster DM Healthcare group based in Dubai. Initially the pharmacy set-up was just to cater to their patients coming out of their clinics and hospitals. But it grew exponentially both in products & geographies, in the recent years. “With a growing network of over 200 pharmacies, we are committed to bring reliable & quality healthcare closer to our consumers with unique services such Secure Rewards Program, the first Pharmacy Rewards Program, launch of UAE’s 1st online pharmacy, home delivery service ,800-700-600—a dedicated call center enabling its customers to access over 700+ multilingual pharmacists who counsel & provide medical assistance 24/7. In India too the aster pharmacy is growing rapidly, we are opening one new pharmacy every 3 days , so by end of March 2022 we will be a 150 pharmacies in India”, added Bala.


Tech in Pharma

Modern retail pharmacy chains have the advantage of being digitised, organised and tech-enabled. This helps them to track medicine inventories and sell 100% reliable goods. “We are one of the first pharmacy chains to get the local regulatory clearance to have the upload prescription facility. The process is quite seamless and also help consumers skip the waiting time in the pharmacies, echoed Bala. Additionally, retail pharmacy chains provide value-added services for consumers who have medical claims or insurance filing to be done, and can always be requested to refurbish previous bills or memos. Hence, these pharmacy chains function based on hyperlocal or Omnichannel business models that perpetuate a more transparent and convenient source of selling goods. “So we are working with aggregators including major retail format chains as well in the hypermarket space such as Carrefour to offer convenience. The prescription delivery part is also on the cards but the rules and regulations will allow the pharmacy business to take care of the last mile because of the regulatory framework. But we have built in the technology, said Bala.

Retail pharmacies have also started investing in technology to improve service, cut costs and optimize stock availability. The pandemic has accelerated the growth in the traditional pharmacy retail outlets as well as the online pharmacy channels. They witnessed surge in orders for medical devices, personal protective equipment, health supplements and common drugs. Aster has already been on a digital transformational journey prior to the covid. They are taking advantage of the technology tools available to meet your customers’ demands.  The launch of the portal – by Aster Pharmacy also coincided with the opening of its 200th outlet. “Our e-commerce platform is a big step in the right direction which has been in the business for the last 5 years. Since Covid started, the acceleration that we see and the amount of interest that we have seen in our consumers in wanting to opt for convenience has tremendously increased. Very soon we will be announcing partnerships with very big e-commerce portals who are in the healthcare space”, stated Bala. The online platform offers convenience, choice and health product delivery. It wants to provide consumers the comfort of ordering and receiving health care products sitting in the comfort of their homes. “sThroughout the pandemic, we have tried our best to ensure that the right drug was made available at the right time.They were able to do this because of tech-enabled and modern streamlined processes”, added Bala.

Supply chain management 

In today’s competitive market environment, pharmaceutical companies have learned that improving supply chain performance is critical to maintain competitive advantages. Forecasting, planning, procurement, financing, stock levels, and marketing strategies are some of the areas in which managers have to decide about them and balance their enter-related effects simultaneously, to achieve organizational goals. “Most of the medications that the consumers use until today has to be imported. There are manufacturing facilities in the UAE and the region that have come up and there is a percentage of certain share going to certain companies . A significant amount of products still have to come from overseas and therefore how the distributors are able to coordinate their forecast with the brand principles matters a lot. So supply chain is extremely important” stated Bala.

With growing global healthcare spending and increasingly complex pharmaceutical supply chains, the industry has seen a surge in falsified medicines entering the marketplace.  The World Health Organization reports that 1 in 10 drugs in low- and middle-income countries are either substandard or falsified, and notes that bad drugs have been reported in over 110 nations. To combat this, national pharmaceutical regulatory bodies such as the DHA in Dubai have been working to implement track-and-trace governance into the industry. Their goal is to provide security and quality control for all prescribed drugs using serial identification for individual drug units.“There is still a wide gap between demand and supply of pharma products. We are governed by a lot of jurisdictions, although we have a federal authority and ministry of health. In Dubai we are working under the DHA, in Abu Dhabi under the DOH or Abu Dhabi Health Authority (HAAD). So we have a number of jurisdictions we have to comply with. From a compliance point of view you have to be completely compliant and to have a successful business”, added Bala.

Aster Xpress

The launch of Aster Xpress, a novel concept which brings together a one-doctor clinic inside a retail pharmacy will help patients with general ailments and primary health needs seek instant medical care and receive the medication within the least possible time. “One of the other firsts that we started is the Aster Xpress which actually is a pharmacy with a GP clinic inside similar to practices in the west like CVS pharmacy. We have in fact opened the first Aster pharmacy and clinic in Expo village which is in the vicinity of Expo 2020”, confirmed Bala. Introduced specially for the residents of The Expo 2020 Village, Aster Xpress would provide first aid, effective triaging and basic diagnostics for general medical needs as well as cater to health & wellness requirement of Expo visitors and residents of Expo Village. Patients can be referred to larger facilities with specialized doctors as required. “We are the only operating pharmacy inside the Expo 2020, located in the sustainability district. “We have strived to make the concept seamless by creating a virtual check-in and appointment booking, consultation and dispensing medication in 3 easy steps. One can even seek tele-consultation with the doctor to report their symptoms and the prescription medicines can be delivered at their doorsteps.”

A quick industry overview

In the UAE there are about 3000-3500 pharmacies. The benefits in terms of pharma procurement have decreased where as the cost of operation has been increasing. “Good talent is again not easy to find, consolidation is happening. There has been some mergers and acquisitions as well during this time. So that’s about the UAE. With respect to the rest of the GCC—the only market that has been significant other than the UAE is Saudi Arabia and I think there are massive oppurtunities for more further entrance. We have 3 or 4 big retail pharmacy chains which dominate the landscape . But with the kind of investments the Saudi Govt is making in healthcare, I think there is scope for more players to come and operate”, concluded Bala.



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