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The evolution of retail pharmacy demands innovation: New tools embrace data and automation to drive efficiencies and enhance patient service

Changes in retail pharmacy ushered in by the pandemic will continue to accelerate with greater adoption of technology and clinical care services.
Mark Hamstra

The pandemic has accelerated change in the retail pharmacy, including investments in innovation and the deeper involvement of the retail pharmacy in patient care.

Nearly half of pharmacists (48%) and two-thirds of prescribers (66%) reported an increase in technology use over the past 18 months, according to a survey by Surescripts. The survey concluded, however, that “there still appears to be plenty of room for technology to improve everyday workflows and frustrating processes.”

“In my 45 years in the pharmacy profession, the opportunities and challenges that have been presented to pharmacists in the last 22 months are unparalleled, with new COVID-related responsibilities and an evolving role on the patient’s care team,” said Ken Whittemore Jr., RPh, vice president of professional and regulatory affairs at Surescripts. “To keep up with these changes, pharmacists are accelerating their use of technology to address administrative burdens and interoperability barriers.”

Opportunities still abound, however, he said, noting that pharmacists communicate about clinical matters with prescribers via their pharmacy software only 33% of the time, according to the Surescripts research, and most of the pharmacists surveyed (58%) find it somewhat or very difficult to access a patient’s out-of-pocket costs.

“This means pharmacists are spending unnecessary time locating missing information, sending faxes and making phone calls,” Whittemore said.

“In 2022, we’ll see greater adoption of technology that brings simpler, trusted intelligence sharing to pharmacies,” he said. “Electronic prescription change requests, direct secure messaging and real-time benefit tools, among others, will help remove friction and delays throughout the prescribing and patient care process. This will not only impact the way pharmacies do business, but it will make an even bigger difference for their patients.”

rob blazek instep health
Rob Blazek, RPh, senior vice president of networks and analytics at InStep Health

InStep Health
Rob Blazek, RPh, senior vice president of networks and analytics at InStep Health, agreed that the pandemic increased the rate of change and adoption of new services in retail pharmacies. “It also accelerated the trend of pharmacy’s increased role in their customers’ health care,” he said. “Look at how quickly retail pharmacy was able to add COVID-19 testing and COVID-19 vaccinations to their suite of services.”

Retailers are bringing an expanded array of healthcare services into their pharmacies at an unprecedented rate, Blazek said. “In 2022, you’ll see expanded offerings in primary care and telehealth as well as new offerings like sleep disorder and other chronic health condition screenings,” he said. “Technology will continue to be a key driver of this innovation, allowing consumers to plan their visit ahead with an online scheduler, use wayfinding tech and online coupon apps to optimize their in-store visit, and then have pharmacist-led texts and calls to ensure patients are receiving the highest quality care possible. In summary, pharmacies are becoming an accessible, easy-to-navigate, one-stop shop to manage your health.”

john king omnisys
John King, CEO of OmniSYS

John King, CEO of OmniSYS, said his company’s focus is to help pharmacies grow the clinical side of their businesses, such as expanded point-of-care testing and screenings, and more immunizations, which represent scalable growth opportunities for the pharmacist as a provider.

“We’re going to continue to see in 2022, and for the next couple of years, a real focus on helping pharmacies scale these high-volume clinical services in their operations,” he said.

OmniSYS brings more clinically oriented, actionable insights to the pharmacist, King said. “Ultimately it comes back to data — how do you enrich data and transform data, and how can you bring it to the point-of-care so that pharmacists can readily take action,” he said. “The ability to personalize information through data enrichment and then through callable services, and then presenting it to workflow, become really important.”

OmniSYS is focused on increasing operational efficiencies for pharmacies so that pharmacists can provide more clinical services within the time constraints of the retail environment, he said.

Pharmacies also should be able to leverage their investments in existing systems, he said, with solutions that allow them to call up discrete data for specific functions and tie it into third-party applications. “The technology of 2022 really needs to focus on how to leverage the existing assets inside a pharmacy,” King said.

Crocus Medical
John Webster, vice president of innovation and product development at Crocus Medical, said the pandemic exposed the technological shortfalls in retail pharmacy.

“Clearly, pharmacists should have had a range of support technologies in place in advance of the pandemic in the first place and didn’t, so consequently many were short-staffed, overworked and their clients were frustrated,” he said. “Why there hasn’t been a huge movement toward implementing automation, especially during the pandemic, to help address these challenges, is a mystery to me.”

Webster said he hopes these past two years will be a wake-up call for pharmacists, especially independents, to invest in support technologies that will not only improve their current business efficiencies, but will ensure they are prepared for the future.

Our company, for example, offers pill counters, multidose adherence pouch packagers, multidose adherence blister packagers, ‘will call’ pick-to-light systems, inventory pharmacy management software and even patient ‘Rx self-retrieval’ cabinets,” he said. “There are endless opportunities, depending on the pharmacist’s business strategy, to help run more efficiently and cost-effectively through the use of automation and technology.”

Technology adoption in retail pharmacies “has been painfully slow to happen,” Webster said, citing as an example the fact that simple, inexpensive pill-counting technology has been available for more than 50 years. “I am astounded that the majority of pharmacies still use people to count pills, while other customer service tasks are ignored because the team is ‘too busy dispensing.’

“In my 45 years in the pharmacy profession, the opportunities and challenges that have been presented to pharmacists in the last 22 months are unparalleled, with new COVID-related responsibilities and an evolving role on the patient’s care team.”
Ken Whittemore Jr., RPh, vice president of professional and regulatory affairs, Surescripts
scriptpro system

Chris Fitzmaurice, director of industry data resources at ScriptPro, said the pandemic has increasingly highlighted and drawn greater attention to pharmacists as front-line healthcare resources. Retail pharmacists will need to continue balancing their time between clinical services and other tasks, he said. While automation is already improving safety and efficiency in successful retail pharmacy operations, technology will have an even greater impact going forward. Data analysis and robust reporting will help close gaps, clinical and business related. Systematic data capture will enable early identification of patients liable to fall through the cracks, he said.

The year ahead, Fitzmaurice said, will see a continuing focus on the merging of technological advancement (algorithmic approaches to problem-solving, intelligent automation, data aggregation and analytics, remote patient management, etc.) with a growing clinical focus (disease/drug management, expanded practice capabilities, testing/vaccination expansion).

“Traditional pharmacy automation, like ScriptPro’s SP 200, not only streamlines workflows but also maximizes the pharmacy team’s ability to provide essential services — namely patient management,” he said. “This is crucial in helping patients both in terms of short-term adherence and long-term persistence.

“Newer technologies, such as medication pouch packaging automation like ScriptPro’s MP 100, offer even more granular ways to improve adherence. Medication pouch packaging can be both a profitable business solution and an effective way to assist patients, particularly those with complex drug regimens.”

Identifying adherence gaps is also increasingly important, Fitzmaurice said.

“Leveraging data in documentation systems to identify nonadherent patients and to determine the root cause of nonadherence is indispensable in closing these gaps,” he said. “Clinical documentation software, such as ScriptPro’s APCS, have built-in mechanisms to determine the risk of nonadherence and reporting capabilities to intervene in cohorts of patients based on a variety of factors. This takes the guesswork out of the equation and allows pharmacists to focus on their highest-risk patients.”

danny sanchez emliven health
Danny Sanchez, senior vice president and general manager of EnlivenHealth

Danny Sanchez, senior vice president and general manager of EnlivenHealth, said the pandemic highlighted the need for pharmacies to engage patients. “The challenge is that historical or the traditional methods of patient engagement are antiquated,” he said. “We need to lean on digital.”

Pharmacists need clinical platforms to help them execute clinical activities more efficiently, which is where EnlivenHealth steps in, Sanchez said. The company’s patient-engagement platform is a clinical platform that looks at all the opportunities that are available for every patient that walks through the door, whether it’s a medication review or immunizations, for example.

“The pharmacist, having that information at the tip of their fingers, is able to then offer that patient those clinical services that they weren’t able to do before,” Sanchez said.

EnlivenHealth also seeks to provide innovation in ways that relieve overworked pharmacists of some of their more mundane tasks, such as answering phones.

“If Jane Doe or John Doe is calling in and wants to refill their prescription, they should be able to talk to an automated system that can answer most of their questions, without having to punch in seven digits — they would be able to do it by voice,” Sanchez said. “That frees up the pharmacist to go and deal with those patients that are standing in front of them. That’s technology that we bring — it’s personalized communication and it’s conversational.”

That same automated voice response system, which answers questions about their prescription, can then also suggest other clinical services, such as vaccinations.

knapp apostore

Brian Sullivan, senior systems sales manager of healthcare solutions at KNAPP, said the company continues to see retail pharmacy customers looking for ways to improve patient care through technology. This includes the onsite use of robotic storage and retrieval systems to automate the put away and dispensing of medications.

“Systems like the KNAPP Apostore allow the automated induction of medications, recording and verification of DSCSA compliance, and FEFO dispensing to reduce the costs of expired medications,” he said.

Most importantly, these dense storage units open space for other clinical activities, which allows pharmacists to work at the top of their licenses, Sullivan said. 

“The use of central fill and micro-fulfillment pharmacies continues to increase as well,” he said. “The ongoing challenge to reduce the cost of prescription fulfillment to offset DIR and GER fees is just one reason. Today, the pharmacy team members are harder to recruit and retain. Centralized filling of scripts allows the retail store to rightsize staffing and keep their team members engaged in higher level activities.”

Patients embraced alternative approaches to receiving their medications and other items during the pandemic, Sullivan said. “Our pharmacy customers realize this and are changing how they offer to provide these solutions,” he said. “Whether via a 24/7 terminal that the patients can access at their convenience or home delivery or in store via digital display like KNAPP’s ApoScreen systems provide. The pandemic has been an accelerator of these technologies.”

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