Tools of the trade: How tech, automation are helping pharmacies manage the COVID crunch

Sandra Levy
Senior Editor
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As pharmacists join other healthcare providers as vaccinators against COVID-19, it’s hard to envision how they will have time to perform their myriad responsibilities, which have ballooned amid the pandemic to include filling a higher volume of prescriptions, performing COVID-19 testing, and providing curbside pickup and home delivery of prescriptions and OTCs.   

Pharmacy technology and automation companies have been ramping up their solutions to help pharmacies juggle their expanded roles in 2021. Many of these solutions involve ensuring that pharmacies can offer patients a contactless experience, while others involve assisting pharmacists with COVID-19 vaccine administration and documentation. Still, other companies have developed new software that improves pharmacy workflows and dispensing of prescriptions.

Bavis' Captive Carrier TransTrax

Making Pharmacies Convenient
Areas that pharmacies have focused on throughout the pandemic are convenience and reducing the number of customers inside stores. Maineville, Ohio-based Bavis Drive-Thru aims to make the drive-thru experience as seamless as possible as more pharmacies focus on convenient, socially distanced approaches. The company’s Captive Carrier TransTrax is a remote lane drive-thru delivery system that executives said improves upon pneumatic tube systems and can enable reliable touchless transactions with patients.

“It offers a high carrying capacity and is low maintenance,” said Ed Arwine, Bavis Drive-Thru’s marketing director. “This system is proven to be easy to use, while providing the room needed to transport large prescriptions, which adds convenience.” He also said that the company’s B.E.A.M. intelligent audio system enhances the experience by reducing outside environmental noise by as much as 90%, making communicating clearly easier for pharmacists.

Bell and Howell, based in Durham, N.C., is interested in taking human contact out of the prescription pickup process, enabling pharmacists to work more efficiently. The company’s QuickCollect Rx is a contactless prescription pickup kiosk that integrates seamlessly into existing pharmacy systems to automate the prescription pickup and storage experience. Because the kiosk has multiple self-service portals, pharmacy staff can induct new prescriptions or retrieve return to stock orders while multiple customers are picking up their prescriptions.

“At QuickCollect Solutions, powered by Bell and Howell, we are focused on providing solutions that improve the customer experience at the pharmacy,” said Grace Vanier, director of product development. “Our QuickCollect Solutions help pharmacies remain cost competitive and operationally efficient, freeing up pharmacy staff to focus on more essential tasks like delivering COVID-19 testing and vaccines.”

KNAPP automation in a pharmacy

Freeing up the Pharmacist
With the volume of clinical services increasing — and a coming wave of COVID-19 vaccinations to administer — many pharmacies are overhauling their prescription fulfillment strategies. Kennesaw, Ga.-based KNAPP Healthcare Solutions is installing new micro-fulfillment operations that use its Apostore Robotic ASRS systems, Apsocreen digital ordering systems and 24/7 dispensing terminals to provide in-store storage and retrieval systems with digital ordering technologies and 24/7 dispensing capabilities.

“These systems open space in the store for broader clinical services, while consolidating inventory and broadening revenue opportunities outside of traditional store hours,” said Brian Sullivan, KNAPP’s senior systems sales manager of healthcare solutions USA and Canada, noting that products can be used for direct patient orders, as well as hub and spoke multi-store support.

Durham, N.C.-based Parata also is looking to be a partner in enabling efficiency behind the counter. The company is expanding its portfolio to include a cloud-based platform to streamline pharmacy operations by offering just-in-time information — real-time diagnostics and batch queues so that pharmacists can make decisions during their workflow. It also offers customized recommendations on inventory and workflow to continually increase automation usage and centralized control — configure script routing for all machines from one screen and advance analytics to optimize inventory and workflow.

“Pharmacy managers can connect previously siloed systems to detect and mitigate problems before they impact efficiency and safety,” said Art Swanson, Parata’s vice president of product development. “Our new pharmacy automation management system also connects pharmacies with our internal industry experts in a partnership focused on your growth, so you can focus on your patients. Parata can help pharmacies adapt and even reduce the cost to dispense medication.”

Pharmacy managers can connect previously siloed systems to detect and mitigate problems before they impact efficiency and safety.
Art Swanson, vice president of product development, Parata

Improving pharmacies’ efficiency also is a top priority for Canada-based Synergy Medical, which has made inroads with its flexible approach to blister-pack production.

“Rather than poke holes in a particular packaging choice, SynMed is expanding its capabilities in the framework, embracing single- and multidose options, as well as covering blister and pouch configurations,” said Samantha Cockburn, vice president of marketing and corporate development. “The key is providing the ability to adapt, while ensuring accuracy and efficiency at every touchpoint. With patented pick and place technology already in place, SynMed automation minimizes cross-contamination issues driven by ongoing COVID-19 concerns, and it easily adapts and integrates with existing pharmacy management software.”

Getting it Right
As convenience and making pharmacists more available for clinical services become priorities, pharmacists must continue to prioritize accuracy for all of their patients. Among the companies that aim to assist with this is LexisNexis Risk Solutions, whose VerifyRx validation tool enables real-time verification of prescriptions to ensure the prescriber data and licensure are accurate.

“This is done automatically within the pharmacist’s workflow to bring assurance without disruption,” said Craig Ford, LexisNexis Risk Solutions’ vice president of pharmacy market. “Provider Data Masterfile also gives our customers a way to standardize and cleanse provider data. We also offer correct patient identification via LexisNexis LexID, a unique patient identifier used as a linking agent for all data points associated with a specific, single patient. Pharmacies implement this solution to ensure the correct patient is receiving the correct medication.”


“Through our Critical Performance Improvement program, we’ve engaged the Surescripts Network Alliance to improve e-prescribing accuracy,” King said. “We’re focused on driving greater use of things like RxChange and Structured and Codified Sig. These aspects of electronic prescribing are even more important today, as COVID-19 is shifting pharmacists’ role, adding more stress and impacting their own well-being.”

Surescripts’ newest tool, Real-Time Prescription Benefit service, enables pharmacies to access information on out-of-pocket prescription costs and therapeutic alternatives at the point of dispensing.

Shots, Shots, Shots
As if navigating a pandemic hasn’t been enough, pharmacies now are looking at the Herculean task of providing mass COVID-19 immunizations once vaccines become widely available — and keeping track of the vaccine’s effects.

EagleForce Health, based in Herndon, Va., has developed MyVax, which enables states, manufacturers, distributors and patients to securely administer the mass dispensing of vaccines, the associated laboratory testing, and adverse event reporting safely and securely with real-time collection, analysis, surveillance and reporting. MyVax also provides a digital immunization card and can connect to any state immunization system to streamline reporting.

“MyVax National Immunization Management solution is the last-mile patient engagement solution whose infrastructure is already deployed nationwide, operating at every point-of-sale pharmacy, providing real-time alerts directly into the pharmacy workflow,” said CEO Stanley Campbell. He also said that MyVax also can provide individuals with information on where to get the vaccine, match Vaccine National Drug Code dispersed to the patient, and set appointments and alerts for the subsequent doses.

Eagle Force Health's MyVax app

San Francisco, Calif.-based 1Health, and STChealth, Phoenix, Ariz. are offering a patient engagement COVID-19 vaccination solution. It is an open platform that will allow pharmacists and patients to simplify and automate vaccination tracking, ADR collection, reporting and anti-body validation.

“With the federal government about to deploy vaccines at the largest scale in history, we are now providing the technology that will help seamlessly manage this process through vaccination, monitoring and antibody testing,” said 1health’s CEO Mehdi Maghsoodnia. “We were able to quickly adapt our existing Testing as a Service platform to create this new offering for patients and providers who desperately need a single tracking and reporting system to achieve immunity and end this pandemic.”

1health also offers the first FDA emergency use-authorized COVID-19 saliva test. Digital results are provided on the company’s secure platform within 48 hours of the lab receiving the results.

Omnicell’s EnlivenHealth division also is using technology to make administering the COVID-19 vaccination less daunting. The company’s EnlivenHealth CareScheduler solution provides pharmacies with the digital technology they need to automate the operational and administrative processes involved with administering the COVID-19 vaccine.

CareScheduler automates vaccine scheduling, patient consent form collection and vaccine registry reporting. “The digital tool dramatically reduces the coronavirus infection risk for patients and staff by eliminating the need for patients to sign physical pieces of paper, while minimizing their time spent in the pharmacy,” said Danny Sanchez, EnlivenHealth vice president and general manager.

He noted that EnlivenHealth in 2021 would work with health plans to prioritize outreach to high-risk populations, schedule vaccine administration at local pharmacies and enable reporting to vaccine registries.

“This is a pivotal moment for retail pharmacies as they further secure their status as front-line healthcare providers.”
Lari Harding, vice president of client development, Inmar Intelligence

Getting Paid
Once a vaccine is administered, it is important that a pharmacy be compensated, something Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Inmar Intelligence knows all about.

Lari Harding, vice president of client development, said that Inmar will be helping ensure that  pharmacies can bill, get paid and reconcile all transactions related to COVID-19 vaccinations. The company also will help pharmacies manage damaged, expired or otherwise returnable vaccination doses.

“This is a pivotal moment for retail pharmacies as they further secure their status as front-line healthcare providers,” Harding said.

The need to bill for immunizations comes as many pharmacies, particularly independents, are facing cash flow difficulty during the pandemic. Jeffrey Swanson, head of sales at Libertyville, Ill.-based Pharma Logistics, said that as a result of the pandemic, some 66% of pharmacy owners are experiencing negative cash flow.

“In 2021, Pharma Logistics will continue to offer pharmaceutical returns services that are convenient and, more importantly, help drug store pharmacies remain compliant while improving their cash flow,” he said.


Eyes on the Future
Industry experts see the future as ripe for technology to boost patient care in 2021 and beyond. Scott Kemme, McKesson senior vice president of pharmaceutical technology and innovation, said empowered pharmacists build stronger patient relationships and drive outcomes. In 2021, he said it is critical that pharmacists practice at the top of their licenses and focus on improving patient outcomes.

“Robust logistics capabilities and innovative pharmacy technology solutions should be tailored to make basic tasks more efficient and free pharmacists to spend more time interacting with patients,” he said. “Pharmacists rely heavily on technology to help them complete many of their daily tasks, such as adjudication, prior authorization and workflow. Automated solutions not only help them with providing better care for their patients, but also aid in upgrading their clinical, operational and financial performance.”

Brent Stutz, Cardinal Health’s senior vice president of digital health, also underscored pharmacy’s importance in the healthcare realm.

“Pharmacists are a critical part of the healthcare ecosystem, driving improved patient outcomes,” he said. “In order for pharmacists’ capabilities to be fully realized, they will need technology tools that empower them to better communicate with payers and providers.”

In 2021, Cardinal Health will integrate new solutions into its pharmacy technology platform that will help drive improved connectivity between healthcare stakeholders and provide opportunities for more targeted interventions and optimized medication therapy.

“These enhancements will also help to streamline the pharmacy’s workflow by providing a single platform for working outside the script,” Stutz said.

The Dublin, Ohio-based company also is investing in new capabilities, leveraging AI and machine-learning models to help pharmacists predict patient adherence so they can intervene to keep the patient on track.

“We will be deploying automation capabilities that will enable pharmacists to deliver products directly to their patients, which will help to improve medication adherence and compliance,” said Samantha Hoye, vice president of marketing strategy transformation and execution at Cardinal Health.

On the COVID-19 vaccine front, Cardinal Health said it is working to deploy a solution that will help pharmacies streamline their vaccination workflow, with capabilities for medical billing and patient scheduling. dsn