Supermarkets turn to tech to stay ahead

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Supermarkets turn to tech to stay ahead

By Sandra Levy - 06/04/2020

Supermarket pharmacies have gone yard. 

Not only have they kept pace with their large retail chain brethren by expanding into clinical services, including medication therapy management and immunizations, but they have the distinction of being able to connect their pharmacies with nutrition because of the recent influx of organic foods, vegetables and beverages stores are adding to their grocery aisles. And they increasingly are filling a greater volume of prescriptions. 

In fact, in 2019, supermarkets with pharmacies accounted for 7.4% of domestic prescription revenues, an increase from 7.2% in 2018. Supermarkets accounted for 12.5% of 30 day equivalent prescriptions dispensed in 2019 compared with 12.4% in 2018, according to the “2020 Economic Report on U.S. Pharmacies and Pharmacy Benefit Managers” from the Drug Channels Institute. For 2019, the report estimated that prescription revenues at supermarkets increased by 5.1% compared with a decline of 4.4% in 2018, and 30-day prescriptions dispensed increased by 6.3% in 2019 compared with an increase of only 1.6% in 2018, said Adam Fein, one of the report’s authors.

Many supermarket pharmacies have become more intelligent about leveraging all the bells and whistles that technology companies have to offer to more efficiently fill prescriptions, so they can provide optimal patient care. Amid the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, technology has taken on greater importance.   

DSN asked several technology company executives to discuss what innovations they are offering to help supermarket pharmacies work even more efficiently to meet consumer demands during COVID-19, and how they view the future, post-pandemic lockdown

Bavis Drive-Thru
Offering convenience to supermarket pharmacies through its high capacity drive-thru services has been a centerpiece of Cincinnati-based Bavis Drive-Thru’s offerings. Bavis president William Sieber said he has seen a spike in requests from supermarket pharmacies to install second drive-thru lane systems. In addition, a renewed sense of urgency to address existing second lane systems with neglected maintenance or those left to disrepair during the COVID-19 pandemic has occurred.

“Everyone wants to go to the drive-thru for touch-free delivery of products. Pharmacies are putting very high demands on the systems, and while our products are meticulously designed to meet these demands, it’s important to know that preventative maintenance is vital,” Sieber said. “We’re continually working to ensure this is understood and adapted, while simultaneously responding very quickly to these and other unforeseen repair-orientated services. We’ve also ramped up production and inventory, and are selling more drawers, windows and remote lanes.”

Bavis’ newest product, the Vittleveyor, is helping supermarket pharmacies to deliver prescription medications, along with large OTCs and other items, which Sieber said could be especially helpful during the pandemic.     

Additionally, Bavis’ audio system, which runs through the phone system, enables pharmacists to counsel from any phone without leaving their station. A call center also can be set up through the system so a pharmacist can counsel patients from a remote location. 

The Compliance Team
Sandra Canally, founder and CEO of The Compliance Team, based in Spring House, Pa., helps supermarket pharmacies ensure that customers in the store utilize the pharmacy’s services. “This is where they have an obvious opportunity to tie good eating habits to the customer’s current health status,” she said. 

“Through medication management services, supermarket pharmacists can discuss what the customer needs to manage their medications and adhere to their regimens, and also address what lifestyle issues are directly related to helping the medication work more effectively to manage their disease,” Canally said.

Many supermarket pharmacies have been community pharmacy accredited by The Compliance Team, which Canally said aids them in focusing on daily practices and operational improvement.

For supermarket pharmacies performing point-of-care testing, MTM, counseling and care planning, The Compliance Team offers an accreditation called Patient Centered Pharmacy Home. “We have many regional chains that are highly sophisticated in their operation and offer many services via nutritional counseling with dieticians in addition to the pharmacist,” Canally said.

Through the pandemic, The Compliance Team is making a point to check in with customers to see how they are doing and what they have put in place for infection control and emergency preparedness, as well as how the company can help them as their accreditor.

“We want to know how they have changed their service delivery models during this crisis and how they are protecting themselves, their staff and customers,” Canally said. “We offer weekly webinars every Thursday at 2 p.m. EDT. All of our employees are working the phones remotely and eager to help our customers with resources.”

Inmar Intelligence
Inmar Intelligence provides supermarket pharmacies with actionable analytics, including industry benchmarking, to help improve their margins and optimize their use of working capital. The company also helps supermarket pharmacies use data to improve payer negotiations and provide payer appeals and audit management as a service so they can increase revenue recovery.

Lari Harding, vice president of client development, said that Inmar’s tech-enabled services in the supply chain allow operations to be more efficient. “All of this empowers pharmacies to improve margins by growing the top line and lowering expenses and bad debt,” she said.

Harding pointed out that supermarket pharmacies experienced an increase of 20% to 30% in fill volumes when COVID-19 began. “Many consumers are getting 90-day fills on their insurance plans, while some insurers are allowing for early refills. In some instances, consumers are paying cash for additional refills to ensure they have their medications. Inmar analytics are helping our supermarket pharmacy clients better understand these trends in patient behavior so they can make more informed decisions at the corporate level and quickly implement needed changes,” she said.

Harding said that Inmar’s analytics can help pharmacies monitor fill shifts to inform agile decision-making, and help address excess inventory issues with returns solutions that allow for shipping current inventory back to the distribution center so that medications can be redeployed to the pharmacy where they’re needed.

The increase in home delivery of medications during the pandemic also is creating a need for prescription returns services that easily can be employed in cases where a patient refuses delivery.

“Pharmacies do not want potentially exposed drugs coming back into the pharmacy, and they need to make sure the return process is clear and comfortable for consumers,” Harding said. “Inmar can provide return kits for all e-commerce pharmacy programs.”

Innovation, based in Johnson City, N.Y., offers a full range of both in-store and centralized high-volume pharmacy automation solutions.

Marvin Richardson, the company’s newly minted CEO, said that supermarket pharmacy chains are evaluating the best way to centralize their prescription fulfillment due to cost reduction, resource reallocation and patient care benefits that centralization brings to the table.

“In this model, we would implement our PharmASSIST Symphony for High Volume platform, enabling them to manage their central fill site at the highest levels of efficiency,” Richardson said. “Additionally, we offer professional consulting services that could help streamline their workflow processes and decrease patient waiting times.”

Richardson highlighted Publix and Giant Eagle as examples of Innovation’s prominent chain customers that are having success with their centralization of prescription fulfillment. “We have proven that moving to a central fill model is the smarter and most cost-effective way to go. Central fills decrease in-store workloads by pulling large numbers — upwards of 50% — of maintenance refills out of their stores,” he said. “Filling prescriptions centrally also lowers the cost to fill, greatly reduces medication inventory at the store level, and optimizes patient safety by freeing up in-store pharmacy staff from prescription checking and fulfillment to delivering patient-facing interactions.”

Finally, Richardson said that several of Innovation’s customers are expanding their hours of operation at their central-fill pharmacies in order to accommodate the added prescription volume and to enable all necessary patient interactions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“As they prepare for the eventual COVID-19 vaccine, they are planning ahead to add capacity at new central fills or existing central fills to move more prescription filling out of the local stores. This will allow for more time for their pharmacists to perform immunizations,” Richardson said. 

Kennesaw, Ga.-based KNAPP provides multiple automation solutions for supermarkets and their pharmacy operations. These include solutions for in-store pharmacy and grocery, as well as upstream in the supply chain. Upstream solutions include direct mail, central fill, compliance and specialty pharmacy automation. KNAPP also is a market leader in the deployment of the latest distribution center automation, keeping supermarkets and their pharmacies running efficiently, especially in challenging times. 

Brian Sullivan, senior systems sales manager of healthcare solutions for the United States and Canada, said that the company’s Apostore robotic dispensing systems store a large percentage of medications in the back pharmacy, allowing rapid retrieval of OTC items and medications. 

“Because of our advanced vision systems, medications do not need to be stored as a single NDC per position, but can be comingled,” he said. Each facing can have four, six or more meds stored, and the system always knows where the medication is, its lot number and expiration date. This ensures a technician is always provided the first medication to expire, and the pharmacy is able to use up to 60% less space for storage,” he said. 

In times of drive-thru dispensing and social distancing, Sullivan said the Apostore 24/7 automated systems allow a supermarket pharmacy to dispense medications after the pharmacy staff has gone home. 

“Through the COVID-19 pandemic, KNAPP has been helping supermarket pharmacies ensure existing infrastructure is operating at peak capacity. “Critical supply chain and healthcare projects continue to move forward with implementation and adoption of best practices,” Sullivan said.

KNAPP also is prioritizing healthcare channels. “We have emphasized critical supply chain businesses as we work diligently to respond to projects and initiatives designed to expand capacity and meet new operating requirements, and, as we are all keenly aware, these projects have increased in both scope and urgency,” he said. 

LexisNexis Risk Solutions
As supermarket pharmacies seek to balance patients’ needs with business and regulatory demands, providing access to the right data at the right time is critical. Enter LexisNexis Risk Solutions, based in Alpharetta, Ga., which enables the automation of relevant data insights right into the pharmacy workflow for supported decision-making and maximum efficiency.

“With respect to patient safety, our sophisticated linking technology analyzes records from disparate data sources and links them together as a common record to establish a universal patient identifier,” said Craig Ford, LexisNexis senior vice president of pharmacy sales. “The pharmacy, then, is better able to fully realize a key component of interoperability with providers and care teams to ensure that patients are accurately identified and treated with a complete picture for wellness and disease management.”

The use and integration of important social determinants of health data helps pharmacies identify patient medication adherence challenges, Ford said. The company’s Provider Data Masterfile and VerifyRx also help supermarket pharmacies to improve patient safety while reducing regulatory risk.

“The key here is automation and workflow integration, so pharmacies feel less burden and more empowerment in meeting compliance demands,” Ford said. “The solutions are highly configurable and responsive so pharmacies can identify potential submission errors, providing checks on all prescription transactions before they are transmitted to payers.”  

Ford said that the company is helping pharmacists during the pandemic with its VerifyRx Prescriptive Authority Edit feature that accurately checks state-specific prescriber credentials so a provider’s prescriptive authority can be narrowed down to the drug level. Its ThreatMetrix cybersecurity solution aids pharmacies providing drive-thru or remote COVID-19 testing services. This solution allows pharmacists and healthcare associates to access patient data quickly and securely through employee portals via tablets, laptops and other portable devices.

Officials at Las Colinas, Texas-based McKesson said the distributor’s focus is on providing a stable and predictable supply chain. To that end, Chris Dimos, president of retail solutions, said that McKesson helps to ensure that all supermarket and community pharmacies are able to offer the right products at the right price and at the right time.

“Many supermarket pharmacies have effectively put automation and robotics into practice in meaningful ways,” Dimos said. “For example, using inventory management solutions from Supplylogix enables pharmacies to maximize replenishment activities, increase efficiencies and minimize losses from returns, thereby helping to lower operating costs.”

Dimos said he expects more pharmacies will take advantage of centralized prescription dispensing systems, such as McKesson’s Central Fill as a Service to improve customer service and patient outcomes, as well as increase labor efficiency without a huge initial investment.

“By choosing the service that allows them to move filling tasks to another location, these pharmacies are able to shift the pharmacy team’s focus to additional patient care services, including wellness programs, chronic condition management services, specialty drug dispensing, and more,” he said. “This lets them better engage with their patients and dedicate time to developing new revenue streams.”

Dimos also said McKesson is responding to the supply challenges in the industry caused by the COVID-19 pandemic by “helping to make sure that the supply chain continues to deliver every day, and that the company has the available products in the right place in the right quantities when people need them.”

McKesson Pharmacy Systems 
Las Colinas, Texas-based McKesson Pharmacy Systems offers supermarket pharmacies software workflow tools like EnterpriseRx, a robust, clinically driven pharmacy management system that, when coupled with Clinical Programs Solutions, integrates clinical services and other interventions, such as vaccinations directly into the daily workflow. This combination helps provide pharmacists with reporting and documentation of provided clinical services to support medical care reimbursement.

“From there, we can also help them lessen the manual tasks at often very busy retail locations by adding automation solutions, including central fill and mail order services through our High Volume Solutions business,” said Patty Hayward, vice president of sales.

Supplylogix software enables supermarket pharmacies to realize as much as a 35% improvement in inventory turns and minimize losses from unsalable returns by as much as 25%, all leading to bottom line savings, Hayward said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Supplylogix has been helping customers adjust their inventory redistributions outside normal capacities and increase purchases as necessary to make sure each location has what they need to support their patients.

Omnicell, based in Mountain View, Calif., is making headway with its Omnicell Patient Engagement platform. 

Danny Sanchez, vice president and general manager of population health solutions division, said that the company’s Omnicell Patient Engagement platform allows supermarket pharmacists to have a more rounded, value-based discussion with consumers by enabling pharmacists to present opportunities to consumers, such as MTM, medication synchronization and immunization notifications. 

“We queue and prioritize information on the platform for the pharmacy staff. We present value-based interventions and campaigns that a chain may want to act on.  Additionally, opportunities to assist payers are presented so that we can help them target their high-risk patients,” Sanchez said.

Omnicell also is enhancing its omnichannel communication platform technology to enable supermarket pharmacies to learn customers’ behaviors, so that they can message patients to pick up their medications or to get an immunization at the most appropriate time and place. 

“Our omnichannel system has the potential to be a game-changer by helping pharmacies control the high volume of patients coming to pick up their 30-, 60- and 90-day refills,” said Sanchez, who expects the system to help pharmacies deal with the high volume of patients when a COVID-19 immunization becomes available, as well.

“We’re taking AI learning to another level and tying everything together. We’re learning customers’ habits, leaning on their demographic and geographic profiles to reach their patients at the appropriate time. It will help blunt the volume of patients coming in at once and will make it more convenient for the pharmacist to perform at the top of his or her license,” Sanchez said. 

Irvine, Calif.-based PrescribeWellness, a Tabula Rasa HealthCare solution, is a leading provider of patient relationship management software and services that expand the role of pharmacy to deliver population health and chronic care management services. 

Farah Madhat, executive vice president of the pharmacist providers division, said that PrescribeWellness’ proprietary cloud-based technology leverages behavioral science and interoperability to ensure pharmacies are capitalizing on enhanced patient care and revenue opportunities.

“Through one centralized platform, PrescribeWellness software can address a number of patient care options, including patient communications via voice or text, medication synchronization, vaccination program support and reporting, identifying gaps in coverage, Medicare plan reviews, eCare plans, and adverse drug effects risk scores,” Madhat said. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, through PrescribeWellness software, pharmacies can manage their patient communications and send important pharmacy updates at scale, educate and engage their community with social media content, protect patients by limiting visits to the pharmacy with medication synchronization and predictability, and document COVID-19 encounters within the eCare platform. 

ScriptPro provides robots that leaders at the Mission, Kan.-based company said can handle 30% to 60% of a supermarket pharmacy’s prescription volume. 

“ScriptPro’s robots enable a pharmacy to do more with fewer staff resources,” a ScriptPro spokesperson said. “With direct-to-vial filling, you can dramatically limit unnecessary human handling of your prescriptions.” 

ScriptPro also is stepping up its efforts to help supermarket pharmacies with their workload during the pandemic. “On the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, ScriptPro robots help pharmacies deliver the best care possible,” the spokesperson said. “From dramatic spikes in pharmacy volume to staff shortages, now more than ever, you need powerful systems that bring efficiency, accuracy and safety to every prescription you dispense. We are ready to rapidly deploy ScriptPro technology into any pharmacy environment, along with training and 24/7 support.”

Arlington, Va.-based Surescripts supports supermarket pharmacies with technology and tools designed to help them receive more complete and accurate prescriptions faster, and to offer them at a price that patients can afford. 

“This all can lead to shorter exception queues; lower prescription abandonment; better adherence; enhanced pharmacy operational efficiencies; and happier, healthier patients,” said Ken Whittemore Jr., Surescripts vice president of professional and regulatory affairs.

Since 2016, Surescripts has driven an 80% improvement in the accuracy of e-prescriptions. “This increase often eliminates time-consuming faxes and phone calls; helps to optimize time to therapy; reduce the risk of adverse drug events; and avoid confusion for prescribers, pharmacists and patients,” Whittemore said, adding that Surescripts processes more than 5 million e-prescriptions everyday via its nationwide health information network.  

With the company’s RxChange message, communication between the pharmacy and prescriber is streamlined directly in the pharmacy management workflow. “When pharmacy personnel identify a need to make a change to or clarify the original new prescription, they can electronically send the prescriber a pharmacy RxChange Request. The prescriber can then reply electronically with an RxChange Response,” Whittemore said.

Surescripts also offers Clinical Direct Messaging, which connects pharmacists and other healthcare professionals with secure, HIPAA-compliant exchange of protected health information. Clinical Direct Messaging enables secure electronic communication with prescribers, including the ability to attach documents. “This helps to significantly reduce delays and back-and-forth phone calls,” Whittemore said. 

Synergy Medical
Synergy Medical is a leader in providing technology that helps supermarket pharmacies improve adherence.

Rob Anderson, senior director of sales for the Western United States, said that supermarket pharmacies can differentiate themselves by providing an adherence program, with convenient packaging to help patients better manage their medication. 

Anderson cited the following benefits of multidose blister cards for patients managing multiple medications: 

  • Prescriptions are organized by dosage time to eliminate confusion;
  • It is easier for a patient to self-medicate and for caregivers to monitor, if medications are being taken;
  • There is only one delivery or one trip to the pharmacy per month; and
  • There is proven improved adherence and health outcomes with a combination of MD blister packs and MTM.

SynMed automation allows a pharmacy to consolidate prescription processing and reduce the labor associated with the production of adherence packs. It also reduces the amount of touchpoints for prescription processing and offers the ability to use existing labor for more value-added tasks or areas of need.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, multidose blister cards enabled supermarket pharmacies to serve the most vulnerable, high-risk populations that are managing underlying conditions. “It reduces the amount of ‘touchpoints’ for the processing of a patient’s prescriptions and confusion associated with self-medicating. It also reduces pharmacist interventions and ensures that the patient is taking the right medication at the right time,” Anderson said. “Daily production is planned and easier to control by syncing a patient’s medications onto a common start date for all refills.

Bill Bender, vice president of sales and marketing at Corona, Calif.-based Uniweb, said that the biggest challenge supermarket pharmacies face today is to design efficient pharmacies with small footprints. “Our goal is to design pharmacies where pharmacy personnel can grow into a pharmacy and not be obsolete in a year or two,” he said.

To that end, Uniweb offers an experienced design department that helps create an efficient workflow design. This includes the company’s flexible pharmacy shelving system, as well as standard work counters and adjustable-height work counters, which are designed to improve ergonomics.