GLOBAL: A new kind of service is tapping into embarrassing medical conditions, as companies sell and deliver pharmacy products in a ‘disruptive’ marketplace that saves customers blushes.

In June, Amazon bought PillPack, an online pharmacy capable of shipping prescription drugs around the US, an indication of the company’s ambitions in an area that has resisted disruption for a number of reasons, not least regulation. The company’s opportunity in the drug space does not, however, mean that there are not players growing in this space, even if they aren’t willing to call themselves pharmacies.

The tide appears to be turning. In the US, the startup Hims that sells erectile dysfunction treatments, hair-loss and skincare medication recently raised $50m to expand into prescription categories. Some sources have it called a “Goop for men”, with its Instagram native branding alongside the convenience of home delivery.

Beyond erectile dysfunction, the company also offers a connection to a practitioner through its online platform: this can diagnose (using a survey and then text, call, or video chat consultations with remote doctors) and then sell products for the relevant ailment. The company also offers a solution for cold sores, a form of herpes.

Meanwhile, the startups Roman and LemonAid bring together a similar offer: diagnosis and treatment as part of a wellness brand, with useful how-to articles keeping the experience light, exuding choice not desperation. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Hims’ CEO, Andrew Dudum denied that the company was an online pharmacy, referring to it as a “holistic men’s wellness brand”, because it also sells supplements, skincare and shampoo.

The high value of such startups lies not only in consumer demand for treatment, but also from the value of the data that they hold, even in anonymised form. At the same time, there are worries that the companies’ reluctance to be considered pharmacies is about avoidance.

“If they are acting as a pharmacy they have to comply with the regulations that apply to health care providers,” Sharona Hoffman, a bioethics and law professor at Case Western Reserve University, told The Outline. Consumers are protected by HIPAA privacy rules around the sale and sharing of private data with third parties, but by stripping any identifying data, companies can circumvent the regulation.

Sourced from WSJ, Fortune, Buzzfeed News, The Outline, Wikipedia; additional content by WARC staff