Echo: a prescriptions app that links patients, doctors and pharmacists

Emblematic of the coming smartphone revolution in healthcare, Echo is a London-based startup that wants to do away with the laborious business of repeat prescriptions.

24 Nov 2016

Getting prescription meds in the post just isn’t as exciting as a new pair of shoes, a sales bargain or even a humble cookbook. Perhaps more importantly, it often places extraordinary demands on patients with long-term illnesses and their loved ones. It also clogs up valuable time for GPs.

Echo is a company set up in July 2015 which wants to give patients Uber-levels of simplicity when it comes to getting their prescriptions.

At present, managing an ongoing prescription is a fragmented process, requiring repeat trips to doctor surgeries and pharmacies. And lots of waiting. By triangulating between patients, doctors and pharmacists, Echo is getting as close as possible to a one-click approach.

On top of that, in the face of budget cuts and massive debts, the NHS is under more pressure than ever to find ways to cut costs.

Using data from the NHS, Echo’s co-founder Sai Lakshmi estimates that £150m of GP time and £56m of A&E time is spent seeing patients that only want piece of paper.

Startups in this area are also hoping to break the stranglehold IT firms have over the NHS. Big companies such as Emis, TPP and INPS, whose systems enable GPs and pharmacies to communicate patient data, can charge up to £20,000 per GP terminal each year. That’s about as much as financial firms pay for a Bloomberg Terminal to trade equities and debt. Echo, on the other hand, makes its money through delivery fees, and claims it will provide its software to surgeries and pharmacies for free.

Echo also claims it will save the ‘huge amount of money wasted each year on unused medicines’; a bill that the NHS pays which it estimates to be to the tune of £300m a year. Lakshmi says it’s likely the figure is higher – some charities estimate that up to 40% of medicines aren’t taken by patients. The NHS reported a spend of £15.5bn on prescriptions in 2015.

Once patients have set themselves up on the app, their prescriptions can be managed through their smartphones, only visiting the doctor to change dosages or wind down medication.

The app also reminds patients to take their medication, according to instructions provided by the doctor, counting down how many pills are left. When they are close to running out, a reminder pops up to request a new prescription. This goes out to the GP, who approves it before the pharmacy packs and sends it out.

The meds then arrive in a sleek, discreet cardboard package, wrapped in black tissue paper and sealed with the company’s sticker. It’s a lot nicer than the generic white paper bag handed over by the pharmacy.

Healthtech companies are racing to break into the cash-cow that is the NHS. No wonder: with a £116bn-a-year budget, it’s a huge client. But this isn’t what enticed Echo. Lakshmi and Echo’s second co-founder, Stephen Bourke, are big NHS fans, which is reflected in their mission to reinforce the value of medication at no cost to the healthcare provider.

‘We believe in the NHS,’ says Bourke. ‘We need to work within the paradigm, not as a separate service that creates divisions.’