Automation key to pharmacy’s reinvention


For decades, chain and independent retail pharmacy has been defined by its unyielding pursuit of professional recognition, fair reimbursement and full status as a member of the healthcare provider team. The industry has made huge strides toward that goal, thanks to massive investments in pharmacy technology and automation, which have enabled a shift in workflow, giving pharmacists the data and decision-making tools to support patient interventions and connect more seamlessly with the broader health network.

“Automation has led to the ability for us to reinvent ourselves as a profession, and we need to take the challenge,” said Marilyn Stebbins, a pharmacy professor and vice chair of clinical innovation at the University of California, San Francisco.

Managing and sharing data is a HIT

Health information technology and connectivity have been critical to pharmacy’s transformation. The industry’s quest to achieve full healthcare provider status for pharmacists hinges on pharmacy’s ability to capture, manage and share up-to-date patient health records in real-time with other members of the healthcare provider team.

This ability to manage and share data has been critical for CVS Health, said company president and CEO Larry Merlo. “… What really sets [us] apart is our ability, largely through technology, to integrate pharmacy care, from the payer to the provider to the patient. With our truly integrated assets, we have a full view of each patient and a single patient record for prescriptions and care regardless of the CVS Health channel used.”

According to Jocelyn Konrad, EVP pharmacy at Rite Aid, it’s critical that the profession and the industry it serves make every interaction between patient and pharmacist “meaningful, and customize those interventions based on the needs of the patient.” “The challenge is to get tools in the hands of the healthcare provider in real-time, to get the information at their fingertips to really personalize the experience,” said Brandon Worth, senior director of health-and-wellness innovations and systems for Walmart.

Relying on robots and central fill

Pharmacy retailers are investing big sums on the hardware and software needed to reduce pharmacy workloads and dispensing costs. Shifting more of the workload to robots and large-scale, automated central-fill pharmacies will lower average dispensing costs and allow pharmacists to engage with patients “at the top of their license.”

“The biggest concern we hear from retailers is the ever-shrinking margin on third-party prescriptions,” said Doyle Jensen, EVP of global business development for Innovation. “It’s getting to the point where … they’re going to have to stop taking certain plans because they’re just not economically viable. That’s why centralization has made so much sense; they can literally save $2 to $7 off the production cost of every single script they process centrally.”

To that end, said Rite Aid chairman and CEO John Standley, “we developed central-fill technology to facilitate the automated picking, packaging and labeling of prescriptions in a central-filling location. We also have developed workload-sharing technology within our stores, whereby stores within a close proximity can shift filling volume to stores with excess capacity. The efficiency of these processes allows our pharmacists to spend more time consulting with and answering our customers’ questions and concerns ….” (For a more in-depth look at recent product developments from Innovation, QS/1, VoicePort, ScriptPro and RxSafe, click here.)

Digital tools for personal service

In line with consumers’ heavy reliance on mobile devices, retailers also are spending heavily to extend their mobile reach. “We’ve made significant investments in the customer experience over the last two years …,” said Shane Sampson, chief marketing and merchandising officer for Albertsons. “E-commerce, digital and social media channels hold unlimited potential for delivering the kind of personalized service our customers want.”

Telehealth and telepharmacy also are getting increased attention as stakeholders begin to embrace the concept. “These technologies have the potential to increase consumer satisfaction, improve medication adherence and help consumers track and monitor their health,” Deloitte noted in its 2016 Survey of U.S. Health Care Consumers.

“I believe telepharmacy will become the system that conveys this information in an affordable and safe way. It will become a platform that enables pharmacies to make the transformation from a product industry to a knowledge industry,” said ScriptPro president and CEO Mike Coughlin.

For pharmacy operators to survive in the new world of interconnected health care and empowered consumers, investing in technological upgrades is a necessity, not an option, pharmacy leaders said.