Automated dispensing system offers savings, greater safety

October 25, 2004

A fully automated pharmacy logistics system for oral solid medications that is capable of unit-packaging and single-dose bar-coding can cost less than $500,000, improve patient safety, and pay for itself in under two years through tight inventory control. So claim the distributors of one such system and some of its clients.

A fully automated pharmacy logistics system for oral solid medications that is capable of unit-packaging and single-dose bar-coding can cost less than $500,000, improve patient safety, and pay for itself in under two years through tight inventory control. So claim the distributors of one such system and some of its clients.

"It takes the potential for human error out of the dispensing system," commented Ron Wolschlag, R.Ph., pharmacy director at 350-bed Decatur Memorial Hospital in Decatur, Ill. Following an extensive search of available products, his company recently purchased such a system from Integrated Healthcare Systems (HIS) in Kent, Wash. "Their system puts bar-code technology throughout the dispensing process," he said.

IHS offers a suite of products that can be purchased separately or together. Its autoPharm software is at the core, operating the company's OS-PAC packaging system and proprietary Barcode Labeling System, as well as stocking a carousel for nonoral medications, narcotics, or refrigerated products as needed. The software is capable of trading electronic files with Pyxis units. "A key feature is on-demand packaging based on input from Pyxis, significantly reducing labor intensity," said Thomas McCarthy, president and founder of the two-year-old firm. "The system's purpose is to create a single, affordable way to control every dose dispensed, from wholesale distribution to the bedside."

IHS calls its full suite of products the Barcode-to-Dose Technology Solution. The autoPharm inventory logistics management system, with carousel technology, can be purchased separately, at about $200,000. Its OS-PAC product, averaging about $165,000, is available in several models, handling from 80 to 500 drug canisters, and is capable of packaging medications in unit-dose or multidose quantities, with up to 19 lines of text and a bar code at the rate of 60 packages per minute. It is compatible with all Windows-based operating systems.

The company's Barcode Labeling System, at about $25,000, produces sticky labels for all nonoral solid medications delivered to the bedside, including injectables, intravenous bags, creams, and ointments. It allows pharmacies to track the location of all items, as well as which employees handled them.

That was one element of the suite that Decatur found attractive, said Wolschlag, because "it put bar-code control into every step of the process." Another attraction was tight inventory control and the resulting cost savings, reducing per-unit packaging cost from 10.5 cents for prepackaged doses to 1.6 cents per dose out of OS-PAC.

According to Wolschlag, Decatur estimates the IHS purchase would pay for itself in 1.9 years. "It creates a perpetual, very cost-effective inventory by automatically reordering as needed, and consolidates our pharmacy functions into a single data file, eliminating the need for an additional drug ordering system," he said.

Still another reason Decatur chose IHS is that it is a stand-alone suite of products, not part of a proprietary inventory system sold by distributors. "Many clients feel this way," said McCarthy, "because if they decide to change distributors, they don't need to reinvest in a packaging system." Return on investment generally runs 18 months, he said, "and often faster, but we don't want to overpromise." He said hospitals have found that they can reduce inventories by more than a third and improve order fulfillment time by 50% or more.