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Ali Esmail's PopRx is reinventing the pharmacy for the mobile-first era

After years of practicing medicine, the Toronto-based doctor is hoping to digitize pharmacies with PopRx's convenient mobile format

Medical doctor Ali Esmail founded Toronto-based PopRx in early 2015, along with Vejey Gandier, whom he had previously partnered with on mobile collaboration platform Medlinx. The duo pitched PopRx on the CBC web series Next Gen Den that same year, earning a $100,000 investment from OMX founder Nicole Verkindt and Shopify COO Harley Finkelstein. He explains how his company is simplifying the process of managing prescriptions on your phone:

“Two years into my residency in head and neck surgery, I thought, What’s going to change medicine the most in the coming years is not what I’m learning in medical textbooks, but rather the impact technology is going to have on the way we interact with patients.

“Our main goal at PopRx is to improve the interaction between pharmacist and patient. What triggered the idea was a simple moment with my wife. She had a cheque she needed to cash, which she did by taking a picture of it using her bank app. She also had a prescription to fill, and said, ‘“I can’t believe I have to go give this to the pharmacy and wait for it.” So the first product was very simple: Take a picture of your prescription and get it filled by an independent pharmacist.

“We charge the pharmacies per month to licence the software and for each prescription they fill using it. We also make money by partnering with pharma firms to provide and direct educational content to patients. We have more than 350 pharmacies and 4,000 users on the platform, and we’ve done 2,500-plus transactions in the past six months.

“In the beginning, people were downloading the application but not completing their orders, because they didn’t know if it was legitimate or where their information was going. So we added a feature called “chat with your pharmacist.” Users can ask questions about their medication or side effects. That is the way users want to communicate; we have a certain demographic of patients between 50 and 65 years old who may be confused by an app but actually really understand chat. So we’re focusing on creating an interface that combines the conversation with the information we have about the patient.

“Say you contact one of our partner pharmacies to get a blood pressure medication. The first message you’ll get will have your prescription information, and you’ll be able to pay for it and have it delivered. Then you receive another message with details about your medication and about tracking your blood pressure. We then take your feedback: Is your blood pressure where it should be? Are you having any side effects? We track red flags and notify the pharmacist if, say, your medication needs to be adjusted.

“We’ve found that the independent pharmacy owners we partner with are more comfortable marketing this service to patients under their own brands. So we’re white-labelling the app—you will use it under your pharmacist’s brand, powered by PopRx. We’re also opening up our first physical pharmacy in Toronto. We want to create an experience where you can say to your doctor, “Send it to PopRx,” and your prescription just shows up on your phone. All you have to do is click and pay for it. And if we can’t deliver that medication, we have 350 pharmacies across Canada in our network that can do it.

“Independent pharmacists retain customers with relationships. No one goes to Shoppers Drug Mart or Rexall because they love the service or the connection with their pharmacist—they go for the convenience. Our approach is to destroy them on convenience.”