For the United Kingdom’s biggest online pharmacy, alongside clinical excellence, unique technology is key to delivering effortless services to patients. Pharmacy2U successfully undertook a rapid expansion of services and accelerated its cloud-native migration plans, with New Relic playing a crucial role to ensure patients received their correct repeat prescriptions without delay.
Launched online in 1999 to reinvent pharmacy care, Pharmacy2U helped develop the Electronic Prescription Service for the NHS, the United Kingdom’s public healthcare service. It has become the largest online pharmacy in the United Kingdom and supports more than 500,000 patients each year with its NHS repeat prescriptions. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Pharmacy2U’s services became even more critical, as the NHS responded to the crisis and at-risk patients needed to shelter at home.
Keeping quality while responding quickly to surges
As Pharmacy2U Technical Solutions Architect Dan Brown explains, the business had to respond quickly to a surge in demand: "In the last six months, we've pretty much doubled in size and become a lifeline for people who’ve had to shield themselves. Whether its blood pressure tablets or diabetes or whatever the condition, patients have been able to order these repeat prescriptions online and delivered through their letterbox." However, this sudden growth hasn’t come without challenges. Like all UK pharmacies, Pharmacy2U is regulated by the General Pharmaceutical Council and the Care Quality Commission and must ensure the highest standards of clinical safety.
"Our clinical accuracy is industry-leading. As we rapidly expand and scale our operations, we must maintain this high standard." Monitoring systems to deliver such a vital service is critical and drove the decision to choose New Relic. "When I joined, there was a gaping hole where we didn’t really understand the performance of our systems well enough," Brown explains. "For me, we didn’t know how fast our transactions were running, what was going on at the frontend browsers or inside the infrastructure. It was hard to see how we were going to scale without the detailed visibility and intelligence that I knew New Relic could give us."
For Brown and his team, real-time and comprehensive observability through New Relic was essential when the business had to move extremely quickly to handle the sudden surge in online prescriptions and new customers during lockdown and after.
Seeing the customer experience
"Understanding our customers’ actual experience of the service is hugely important, especially when so many of them are elderly and may be using a digital service for the first time," says Brown. "We went to massive lengths to support our patients. One of the key things we saw with some of our competitors is [that] patients couldn't get on their websites and there was queuing. With the pandemic, we saw a huge increase on load on the website pretty much overnight, and New Relic really helped us understand what was happening in our systems. This enabled us to react quickly to issues and deliver the more robust, stable systems even as demand exploded. As a result, we were able to say that we were up 100% of the time and didn’t stop welcoming new or existing patients throughout the lockdown period."
The need to respond to the pandemic came as Pharmacy2U invested in new technology to improve the performance and digital experience even more. In fact, the business was halfway through a migration to Microsoft Azure when lockdown started, and cloud computing played a crucial role in scaling up the operations. New Relic is used to monitor and analyze the progress of this migration, which also involves redeveloping the key architecture to a more microservices-based architecture, says Brown. "As we progress on our journey from on-premise to public cloud, New Relic gives us real-time performance testing of the new infrastructure and microservices we’re building to help us grow. Being able to analyze this quickly is important, as how can you scale without some science behind it? Previously you would have had to wait for performance testing results, but with New Relic you get reports and comparison tests back straight away that go into much greater detail."
Extending observability to legacy applications is also key, especially with the older messaging systems used to link the systems to the warehouses that dispatch the prescriptions to patients.
Moving from opinions to data to predict problems
"We did some customization with New Relic to understand how jobs were queuing up, and now we can see the general flow of messages into that warehouse for any given day. It alerts us to when the messaging volume gets busy in case we need to react and scale." Managing the surge in patients and the migration has put considerable pressure on Brown and his team, but having New Relic has helped foster team collaboration especially around incident management.
"We can bring New Relic up so that everyone can see exactly what's happened. For us, this is another great benefit of New Relic, because it’s factual, showing everyone exactly what’s happening, and you can’t argue with it. The entire team’s default now is when we think we've got a problem, let's see what New Relic is telling us first."
"Visibility of our systems through New Relic is an absolute must. It’s allowing us to be proactive, not reactive. To grow fast as we are, we need to understand where the pinch points are and focus on those areas. Without New Relic, we were almost blindly patching things up, and then that problem would come back again. Now, the observability from New Relic means that when I go home, I have confidence that the business and the teams are running as they should be. It means that I can then concentrate on other things where I add value into the business."
New Relic has helped Pharmacy2U navigate significant change and uncertainty successfully, while providing an observability platform that can guide how the business uses modern cloud technologies to continue to grow and serve its customers.
"At the beginning of 2020, we were dispensing 650,000 items monthly," Brown says. "Now we’re sending out over 1 million items a month. How we’ve maintained and vastly improved our technology’s stability and robustness is helped by how New Relic has enabled my team to know about any problem straight away and fix it before the business knows, rather than the business telling us first."