Pharmacy has a problem: One of the traditional core tasks for most pharmacists is getting medications to patients. Getting the right medication to the right patient at the right time carries the potential for direct interventions that improve patient outcomes. But the mechanics of medication dispensing are mind numbingly tedious, repetitive, and nearly impossible to perform without error.
Pharmacy also has a solution: Automation. Dispensing robots never get bored, never get distracted, and make far fewer mistakes than their human counterparts. And in this era of ever-shrinking prescription margins, dispensing robots free up pharmacists and technicians for more profitable clinical services that require human judgment.
In 2016, Tom Gierwatoski, RPh, installed a ScriptPro dispensing robot in his Platte Valley Pharmacy in Brighton, CO. Automation allowed him to boost prescription volume by 50%, freeing up time to expand compounding and grow nonprescription services such as durable medical equipment and diabetic shoe fitting while halving his dispensing staff.
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“We were able to reallocate staff to things that require more human attention,” Gierwatoski says. “And because the robot cut our average wait time to five minutes, I have more time to talk with patients because I’m not backlogged waiting for prescriptions to get to me.”
Automation has long been a fixture in central fill facilities, large health systems, and other settings that count their daily prescription volume by the thousands. Newer generations of community pharmacy automation have made dispensing robots cost-effective for pharmacies with prescription volumes as low as 150 per day, says Bill Lockwood, executive director of the American Society for Automation in Pharmacy.
“Automation is making pharmacies more efficient, no question about it,” he says. “Increased efficiency is giving pharmacies the opportunity to offer more services and to provide more drug safety.”
One thing robotics isn’t doing is reducing pharmacy employment. Robots are more efficient, more reliable, and less expensive than technicians or pharmacists. Pharmacy owners typically redeploy staff who are no longer needed in dispensing rather than letting them go.
“Dispensing medications will eventually become fully automated using various types of robotics,” predicted Al Babbington, CEO of PrescribeWellness, a Tabula Rasa HealthCare company. “Clinical work—the education, motivations, and support that pharmacists provide to patients to enact behavioral change—will be the new foundational service.”
In his prerobot days, Gierwatoski filled about 200 scripts per day at Platte Valley pharmacy. The operation is located in a hospital, handling hospital outpatient needs and discharge prescriptions as well as serving patients from two dozen physician offices in an attached medical building. About 70% of his prescription volume was, and is, new scripts.
“The volume of new prescriptions meant I had to have two technicians all the time inputting, handling insurance, and everything else associated with new scripts,” he says. “With the robot we are averaging 300 scripts per day and just one technician doing all the inputting. There are plenty of more rewarding and more profitable things we can do versus counting pills on a tray.”
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