Sarah Mitroff is a Managing Editor for CNET, overseeing our health, fitness and wellness section. Throughout her career, she's written about mobile tech, consumer tech, business and startups for Wired, MacWorld, PCWorld, and VentureBeat.
Buying prescription drugs online doesn't have a good reputation. In fact, online pharmacies have raised safety concerns for as long as they've been around. So imagine my hesitation when a new dermatologist referred me to Alto, a full-service pharmacy in an app that delivers drugs to my front door.
Despite being a millennial who will readily order food from an app, I was skeptical and untrusting of getting medications through my phone. That is, until I finally tried it.
I've been using Alto now for a few months, and I hope to never have to go back to an in-person pharmacy ever again. Read on to find out why.
Alto's app allows you to manage and fill your prescriptions, and then get them delivered to you. It is currently available in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Greater Los Angeles area. There are also three physical locations -- one in San Francisco, Culver City and Irvine -- where you can pick up medications.
Alto uses machines to automate the process of filling prescriptions. The first is "Hazel," a dispensing machine that holds 188 of the most commonly dispensed medications.
The other is "Henry," which creates plastic pill packs of multiple medications that need to be taken at the same time -- similar to Amazon's PillPack. A pharmacist verifies these two machines' work to catch any errors.
Alto stocks hundreds of medications, including specialty drugs for fertility, HIV and more.
Why use a pharmacy app?
Despite my ever-growing frustration with it, Walgreens has been my primary pharmacy for 10 years. The location I go to is huge, open 24 hours and always has a line at the pharmacy pick-up window. I considered switching to another IRL pharmacy, but never got around to it.
Alto is the opposite experience. There's no line, just a scheduled delivery window. Instead of standing behind someone arguing with the pharmacist about trying to get their medications with an expired prescription, I get to sit on my couch. The long and short of it is that every time I've used Alto, it's been convenient and easy.
Another perk is that Alto delivers a 30-day supply. Though this is changing, some pharmacy chains will only deliver a 90-day supply of medication and that often requires a new prescription from your doctor. At least, that's what Walgreens has always told me.
How does ordering medication from a pharmacy app work?
With Alto, there are two ways to get started; with a new prescription or an existing one.
Create an account
Your doctor can send a new prescription to Alto on your behalf, which will trigger the company to text you to sign up for an Alto account. Or, you can sign up for an account whenever you want and transfer your prescriptions from another pharmacy.
If you do transfer prescriptions, Alto handles a lot of the hassle. It will verify that your prescription is active and that you have refills, and will contact your doctor for you to get more refills as needed.
No matter how you get started, once you have an account, you can schedule deliveries for your medication. You can pick the date you want them to arrive, and then pick a 3-hour delivery window. The choices are usually 12 to 3 p.m. or 6 to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and 2 to 5 p.m. on weekends.
Once you pick the prescriptions you need, you'll see a summary of your order, with the prescription name, dosage, quantity and cost (where available). When you first start using Alto, you might not be able to see a price until the company runs it past your insurance. After that, you'll see the copay cost from the last time you ordered the medication.
During your scheduled delivery time, a delivery person shows up with your medications in a sealed box, which also includes a single wrapped salted caramel as an added treat. Walgreens just can't match that.
Prices are on par with what you would pay at any other pharmacy. You can add your insurance information or a pharmacy savings card to your profile to get your copay or a discount.
You can also pay full price out of pocket for medications that aren't covered by insurance. There are no fees to use Alto, and unlike Walgreens or CVS, there's no delivery fee.
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Is it safe?
I was nervous over using a pharmacy in an app, mostly that I would end up with the wrong medication -- or even worse, fake medication.
A big reason why I tried it at all was that one of my doctors introduced me to it. I was inclined to take their professional judgement as a marker of safety. Another reason I gave it a chance was because I learned Alto was born from AG Pharmacy, a local brick-and-mortar SF pharmacy that operated for around 30 years. Finally, I check my state's licensing board to verify the company had a pharmacy license before I scheduled my first delivery.
Alto is legit, but that's not to say that every pharmacy you find online is. The FDA has a program called BeSafeRx to help you avoid pharmacy websites that are straight-up scams, and find ones that are safe.
Other pharmacy apps and services
Alto is far from the only app out there, here are a few other prescription delivery websites and apps:
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.