Surrey-based Pocketpills is using tech to make pharma care a frictionless experience

The online pharmacy is leveraging AI to improve communication between patients and pharmacists

I recently needed a prescription for a minor ailment, but couldn’t find a single clinic in Vancouver, Burnaby or New Westminster that was accepting walk-ins or new patients. So I visited a Shoppers Drug Mart, fingers crossed that one of the six pharmacists behind the counter could help me out.  

And one did—after an hour-long wait. She diagnosed my ailment, wrote me a prescription and sent me on my way, suggesting that I get my medication from a different pharmacy or wait three hours at this one. With the understanding that I wasn’t going to get my medication until the next day, I left feeling slightly frustrated but still thankful for B.C.’s new minor ailment program that allows pharmacists to treat certain conditions. 

There is a shortage of doctors in B.C.,” says Raj Gulia, co-founder and CEO of Surrey-based online pharmacy Pocketpills. “We have roughly five million British Columbians and close to 6,000 doctors. Around 30-percent of British Columbians don’t have a doctor, so pharmacists have to play a bigger role.” 

Healthtech startups like Pocketpills are trying to streamline communication between patients and pharmacists by digitizing parts of the system. As a former pharmacist himself, Gulia understands the interaction all too well. “It’s a mundane process,” he says. Wait in line, show your prescription, wait for the technician to prepare your medication, and then wait for the pharmacist to sign off on it. “Sometimes the medication is out of stock, and you have to come back tomorrow,” adds Gulia. “There’s a lot of friction in filling prescriptions.” 

Pocketpills is a free service that uses OCR (a technology that can read text within a digital image) to lift and automate prescription data. It has a team of 200 spread across Canada, with almost 100 employees in B.C., says Gulia. The company’s website promises “free medication delivery” and “easy access to pharmacists” anywhere in Canada, and it also uses AI to improve communication between patients and pharmacists.  

“People ask multiple types of questions,” Gulia explains. “Medication interactions, can I do this, can I do that? We get around 50,000-60,000 text messages per month… based on the content of the message, AI can direct and create tasks for pharmacists [to make sure questions are answered faster].” According to the Pocketpills team, on average, calls are answered within one minute. 

Emphasizing the vital role pharmacists play in any economy, Gulia calls them the “highest touchpoint primary care provider” because they work with patients every day. For its work in the field, Pocketpills has amassed around $50 million in investment over the years, says Gulia, from Telus VenturesWaterbridge and the like, majority of which has gone toward building a scalable technology for Canadians.  

Over 300,000 Canadians are registered on the platform, he adds. “I think we have the potential to grow multiple folds in next two to three years, and our aspiration is to grab 1-2 percent of the [$40 billion] market size in next three to four years.”