LAST UPDATED: July 12, 2023
A recent trend has seen many Canadian snowbirds switching to digital pharmacies (sometimes referred to as virtual pharmacies) from their traditional brick-and-mortar pharmacies to help make managing their medications faster, easier and more convenient both in Canada and while travelling to the U.S. - and other international destinations - for extended periods.
At Snowbird Advisor, we receive many inquiries about digital pharmacies - including how they work and if they are safe and reputable. We’ve even partnered with digital pharmacy Pillway to provide our members with a reputable digital pharmacy option.
Given the number of questions we get about digital pharmacies, we’ve created the following guide to help you decide if moving to a digital pharmacy might be right for you – regardless of which digital pharmacy you may be considering. The guide covers:
- Common questions about digital pharmacies
- The benefits of using a digital pharmacy
- The questions you should be asking digital pharmacies before switching over
Common questions about digital pharmacies
Here are some of the most common questions we get from Snowbird Advisor members about digital pharmacies:
What exactly is a digital pharmacy?
As the name suggests, digital pharmacies provide their products and services 100% virtually – they have no physical locations and all of your interactions take place by phone, online, live chat or mobile app (if they offer one).
As far as products go, they typically offer prescription and non-prescription medication, vitamins and other pharmacy essentials you would find in a traditional pharmacy – but deliver them right to your front door for free instead of having to go to the pharmacy to pick them up.
They also help you manage your prescription renewals and refills and provide other helpful services.
Important Note: The services and benefits offered by digital pharmacies can vary from province to province. For example, the services offered in Ontario may be different than the services offered in Saskatchewan, so make sure the benefits offered in your province meet your needs before making the switch.
- What if I need to speak to a pharmacist
Digital pharmacies have licensed pharmacists on staff to consult, provide advice and answer any other questions you may have about your medications, prescription renewals and refills, as well as offer ongoing guided care
Depending on the digital pharmacy you choose, there are usually multiple options available to speak to a pharmacist - including phone, email, text, live chat and mobile app. These options make it easy to consult with your pharmacist at a time that’s convenient for you from the comfort of your own home or while you’re on the go or travelling.
The hours when you can speak to a pharmacist may vary from pharmacy to pharmacy, so you’ll want to make note of what these hours are.
- Are digital pharmacies legitimate and regulated?
The answer is yes. Digital pharmacies in Canada are licensed and regulated just like traditional pharmacies and are subject to the same stringent rules and regulations as traditional pharmacies.
Having said that, before moving to a digital pharmacy you’ll want to make sure they are reputable and licensed to provide services in your province. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use a digital pharmacy referred to you by a trusted source, but you can also do your own homework online and by contacting the companies directly.
While many digital pharmacies are only licensed by the College of Pharmacists in their home province, they can operate in other Canadian jurisdictions as long as they comply with the rules and regulations in that province.
- Do I have to pay a fee to use a digital pharmacy?
You should never have to pay any upfront fees or ongoing “membership” fees to use a digital pharmacy.
Just like with a traditional pharmacy, the only thing you should be paying for is the medications and other pharmacy products you purchase, as well as any applicable dispensing fees - which should be the same or lower than a traditional pharmacy.
- How do I get started using a digital pharmacy?
Getting started with a digital pharmacy is usually a pretty simple process.
In most cases, the first thing you’ll want to do is speak to their customer service department by phone so they can answer any questions you may have.
If you decide to switch over, you’ll create an account – a customer service representative should be able to help you do this online, and in some cases may even be able to set everything up for you. They’ll also help you transfer your existing prescriptions over from your current pharmacy and set up your renewals and refills for you.
- Does a digital pharmacy replace my traditional pharmacy?
In most cases, if you decide to switch over to a digital pharmacy it will replace your traditional pharmacy as your primary year-round pharmacy - both while you’re in Canada and to meet your travel needs - as it’s usually ideal to consolidate your medication management with one pharmacy.
Of course, on the rare occasions you may need to run out to a brick-and-mortar pharmacy, you’ll still have that option.
What are the advantages of using a digital pharmacy?
Digital pharmacies offer a number of benefits and advantages, some of which are particularly helpful for snowbirds who travel for extended periods:
- Free, convenient home delivery in Canada
Unlike brick-and-mortar pharmacies where you need to physically go the pharmacy to pick up your prescriptions – or pay for delivery – digital pharmacies always deliver your medication right to your door - for free.
Delivery times are also very fast – usually next day and sometimes even same day if you live in a large urban centre like Toronto or Vancouver.
- Automated prescription renewals and refills
Digital pharmacies make managing your prescription renewals and refills seamless, automating and customizing the process through your online account and working directly with your existing healthcare providers on your behalf so you never miss a renewal or refill.
- Get more than a 90-day supply for travel
Many traditional pharmacies will only provide up to a 90-day supply of your prescription medication at a time, which can be a big problem for snowbirds who spend more than 90 days outside Canada each year.
Digital pharmacies can often arrange to get you up to a 6-month supply of your prescription medication at a time, depending on your province of residence and insurance provider. More on this below…
- Have your medication shipped to the U.S.
If you’re a snowbird who winters in the U.S., some digital pharmacies can arrange to ship your prescription medications from Canada to the U.S. if you need more or it gets lost or stolen. You may need to cover shipping and duty charges for U.S. deliveries, so you’ll want to get an idea of what these might be.
- Pre-packaged medication doses
Unlike traditional pharmacies, some digital pharmacies pre-package and arrange every dose into individual packets stamped with the date and time to take each dose and the medications contained in the packet.
This is a great feature for individuals who take multiple medications, as it eliminates the need to sort your medication on your own and is ideal for travelling and at home.
- Cost savings
Because digital pharmacies have lower overhead than traditional pharmacies, they can afford to pass some of the savings on to you in the form of free delivery - and sometimes lower dispensing fees.
Questions to ask digital pharmacies before you switch
If you think a digital pharmacy might be a good option for you and you’re exploring your options, here are a few key questions you’ll want to ask them to determine if they are the right fit to meet your needs:
- Does the digital pharmacy have direct billing with your Provincial Drug plan?
Many snowbirds qualify to have the cost of some or all of their prescription medications covered by their respective provincial government drug plans.
If you fall into this category, one of the first questions you’ll want to ask any digital pharmacy is if they have direct billing with your provincial drug plan, and you’ll only want to consider those that offer direct billing in your province.
- Does the digital pharmacy have direct billing with your Private Drug plan?
Similarly, if you take prescription medications that are covered by a private insurance plan, you’ll want to confirm if they have direct billing with your private insurance drug plan, and only consider those that offer this option.
- Can you get a supply of more than 90 days, and if so, how does that supply work?
If you’re one of the many snowbirds who spends more than 90 days outside Canada, getting enough prescription medication to last your whole trip can be an issue, as many traditional pharmacies will only dispense up to a 90-day supply of prescription medication at a time.
Fortunately, some digital pharmacies have systems in place to provide you with up to a 6-month supply of medication at a time. However, some are more adept than others at offering this service and their ability to get you more than a 90-day supply depends on your province of residence and the type of insurance coverage you have.
Private Drug Plan: If you have a private insurance plan that covers the cost of your medication, check with the digital pharmacy to see if your insurance provider will authorize more than a 90-day supply. Many private insurance providers will authorize medication supplies for more than 90 days (typically up to 200 days), but some won’t.
In Ontario: If your medications are covered by the provincial Ontario Drug Benefit program, you may be eligible to get up to a 200-day supply of your prescription medications at a time, allowing you to get all the medication you need before you travel so you can take it with you when you leave for the winter.
In Alberta and British Columbia: If your medications are covered by the provincial drug plans in Alberta (Blue Cross) or British Columbia (PharmaCare) and you spend your winters in the U.S., you can get a 90-day supply before you travel to take with you and have another 90 day supply shipped to you in the U.S., provided that your digital pharmacy offers U.S. shipping (see below).
The Bottom Line: If getting more than a 90-day medication supply is important to you, make sure you ask any digital pharmacy you are considering if they can accommodate you based on your medications, province of residence, and the type of drug plan insurance you have (provincial and/or private).
- Will they ship your medication to the U.S., how long does it take and what is the cost?
If you spend your winters in the U.S., using a digital pharmacy that ships to the U.S. can be a big benefit if you ever need more of your prescription medication for any reason while you’re away.
However, not all digital pharmacies offer this service, so you’ll want to inquire if the one you’re considering does. In addition, you’ll want to know how long it typically takes to ship your medication to the U.S. and any costs involved - there’s usually a fixed rate shipping fee, and you’ll need to cover any import duties and taxes. However, most of the time it’s still much less expensive than getting a prescription from a U.S. doctor and buying medications locally, which can be more expensive and may not be covered by your drug insurance plan.
Pillway – Snowbird Advisor’s Digital Pharmacy Partner
There are multiple digital pharmacy providers in Canada and we encourage you to explore your options, however, Pillway has been Snowbird Advisor’s preferred digital pharmacy partner since 2021, providing all of the benefits outlined above.
In our experience, Pillway is ideally suited for residents of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, and has provided our members from these provinces with high-quality digital pharmacy services to meet their needs both in Canada and while travelling.
If you’re from Ontario, British Columbia or Alberta and are interested in learning more about switching to a digital pharmacy, you can learn more about our partnership with Pillway here.