The Karlsruhe Higher Regional Court just upheld a ban (g) on vending machines for prescription drugs. The Dutch chain of Doc Morris pharmacies had installed the machine in the 2000-person village of Hüffenhardt, near Heilbronn, which had no resident pharmacist of its own. Customers received the drugs after a brief “counseling” session by video. It was the first machine of its kind to be operated in Germany.
Several pharmacies and interest groups immediately filed suit against Doc Morris, claiming the vending machine model did not comply with registration and counseling duties imposed on apothecaries by German law, and thus violated Section 3a of the German Law on Unfair Competition, which prohibits business practices which “violate a statutory provision which is also intended to regulate market conduct in the interest of market participants and the breach of law is suited to appreciably harming the interests of consumers, other market participants and competitors.”
Doc Morris defended itself by claiming the vending machine was little more than a variation on online pharmacies, which are allowed, under strict regulation, by German law. The Court rejected the argument (g), noting that online prescription delivery services are based on the idea that the drug will only be selected, sold, and shipped after being ordered. The vending machine, however, had most of the drugs already available in a storage unit, which mean the “order” and the “shipment” were virtually simultaneous. This reasoning seems a bit contrived, but in any event the court also held that the vending machine failed to comply with the verification and record-keeping requirements established by the German Ordinance on the Operation of Pharmacies.
The bigger picture behind this is the continuous disappearance (g) of local pharmacies in Germany — year for year, about 300 pharmacies (g) close in Germany. The classic German pharmacy is a mom-and-pop operation run by an individual licensed pharmacist. They fill your prescription, and offer specialty health products and cosmetics. The main advantage of this model — over and above its neighborliness — is that pharmacists can instruct you how to use the drugs you’ve been prescribed, and suggest other helpful treatments. The problem, though, is that many of them have only limited storage space, meaning that customers have to wait several hours or an entire day to pick up their pills.
As in many other areas of German commerce, chains and online shops are taking over. Aging customers who grew up in a personalized, one-to-one atmosphere are dying off, and younger customers tend to favor convenience over charm, and inform themselves over the Internet.
The Karlsruhe Higher Regional Court denied a certificate of appeal, but this decision only means it will be harder to convince a higher court to hear the case, but not impossible. In the meantime, Hüffenhardt has no pharmacist, and residents have to drop off their prescriptions with a local doctor, who takes them to a nearby town to have them filled.