Death and taxes are the two life’s two certainties wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1789. But if he was writing today one suspects he would add a third – automation. The past decade has seen an explosion in the use of technology and there is hardly an area of modern life that hasn’t been touched by it in one form or another. Healthcare is no exception, whether it’s in pharmacies, dispensing surgeries or hospitals, robot solutions are being used to deliver greater convenience, efficiency and safety. Since setting up a robotics business last summer, we’ve spoken to hundreds of community pharmacy owners about using robotic solutions as part of their dispensing of their dispensing processes. And what we’ve heard is confirmation that pharmacists are looking seriously at how to use robots to both protect and gain a competitive advantage to win new business.
This shift in thinking should come as no surprise it’s a natural reaction to the squeeze shaping community pharmacy between the ongoing and unfair cuts in dispensing income the mess that is the reimbursement of medicines costs and the continued increase in dispensing volume.
To do nothing could prove damaging for a business. So it’s unsurprising that pharmacists are actively reviewing their business plans to identify every available cost saving and growth opportunity. Those plans need to recognize the impact of long-term industry trends. In England for example more than one in five community pharmacies now dispense 10,000 or more prescription items per month, with a sizeable group in the 20-30,000 item per month range, numbers unheard of a few years back.
This growth in volume, coupled with tighter margins, is forcing pharmacists to look closely at how continuing to deliver high quality patient-centred care. So how does automation help pharmacists achieve their business goals and what further opportunities are there? Let’s consider the three parts of the dispensing process in turn: receiving and processing prescriptions, assembling the medicines and handling them out. There cannot be a pharmacy that hasn’t automated the initial receipt and processing stage. PMR systems are an essential tool that sit at the heart of dispensing process and whether you process electronic or paper prescriptions, pharmacy computer systems have brought immeasurable benefits to the management of patient and clinical data.
The second assembly stage has seen the greatest focus on automation over the past decade. Prescription volume growth means busier dispensaries, with the associated risks that come with processing huge volumes of work in an average opening day.
So it’s now not unusual to see owners of busy pharmacies that have invested in assembly robots that unpack and store stock as well as locate and fetch products during the dispensing process.
When combined with smart PMR systems pharmacies can create separate dispensing zones within a dispensary to service walk in, repeat and care home prescriptions. Pharmacists can then, for example, set PMR stations and assembly robots to prioritize walk in prescriptions over repeats, ensuring customer service levels are maintained even during busy periods.
As for the third phase of the dispensing process – the handling out of dispensed prescriptions – look around any busy dispensary and you’ll see shelves full of bugged regular repeat medicines waiting for collection (or more costly delivery). The workload associated with sorting these bags, finding the right one at busy times, hunting for missing bags, then handling them to the patient, tends to go unappreciated. But add up the minutes associated with each step including the disruption to the normal dispensing routine when staff can’t locate a bag and you can see that a significant chunk of precious staff resource can be wasted in this activity.
Of course, this handling our phase can be where pharmacy adds most value to its fulfilment role and there is the argument that anything that undermines this runs counter to what community pharmacy is all about. But with rising prescriptions volumes (and the necessity to maximize associated contract service income), pharmacists can find their time spread too thinly across each contact point now. The key for the future must be ensure pharmacists act at points where they can make the most impact, and prioritization of activity based on an assessment of risk is going to be vital in the future. Are all prescriptions the same? How involved do pharmacists need to be in routine items such as the third monthly repeat of a long term prescription with no changes?
Contrary to what you would expect, automating the handling out of dispensed medicines can and should give pharmacists and their teams more time to spend with those patients where pharmaceutical input can deliver the greatest benefits.
Consider a pharmacy dispensing 10,000 items per month of which 80% are repeats. Of these repeats how many - 60%, 70% 80% - have no material change in the patient or their medicines from one month to the next? You could safely automate the collection of 5-6,000 items as a strocke, freeing up 60% of the pharmacy’s workload associated with handing out these items. Maxime efficiency in the dispensing process around the regula repeats will free up resource to ensure you and your staff can spend time with patients.
Pharmacy’s biggest asset is its staff. The more they can be freed to support patients with unstable chronic conditions or those struggling with their medicines the greater the profession is valued by patients and the NHS.
A secure automated collection point that lets patients collect their medicinces when it’s convenient for them can drive greater engagement with and loyalty to a pharmacy. It’s a boon for busy parents, commuters and shift workers as well as patients who collect during the day and want to avoid the queues at the counter.
Data from hundreds of installations across Europe shows patients of all ages love the convenience of a collection point what’s not to like about being able to drive up to a collection robot, enter a pint number and collect your regular medicines in a matter of seconds? Much like bank cash machines, collection points remove customer queues for routine collections and allow pharmacists to deliver more convenient and valued services while retaining control of supply and creating space for the important personal interections robots (or delivery drivers) will never be able to provide. Prescription collection robots have been available in the UK for a number of years – they have proved popular across Europe, particularly in countries like Holland – but the current pressures on community pharmacy in the UK mean the rime is now right for cotractors to look seriously at how they can use robotics to help, protect and grow their business.
Gary Paragpuri, CEO of hub and Spoke Innovations From pharmacy.biz