Automation options abound for retail pharmacy

August 22, 2005

Automated medicine machines are a growing trend in retail pharmacies, according to Todd Brown, MHP, R.Ph., associate clinical specialist and vice chair, department of pharmacy practice, school of pharmacy, Northeastern University, Boston. "The number of prescriptions being filled annually is increasing as the population ages, and pharmacies have experienced significant growth in prescription volume," he said.

Automated medicine machines are a growing trend in retail pharmacies, according to Todd Brown, MHP, R.Ph., associate clinical specialist and vice chair, department of pharmacy practice, school of pharmacy, Northeastern University, Boston. "The number of prescriptions being filled annually is increasing as the population ages, and pharmacies have experienced significant growth in prescription volume," he said.

In addition, Brown explained, community pharmacy is transitioning from primarily dispensing to taking on more responsibility for drug therapy management, and pharmacists are being pulled in that direction. "The costs of health care and of medications are constantly applying pressure to make the pharmacy process more efficient, and automation is one way to solve these problems," he said.

Brown went on to point out that while automation has been around for a while, the cost of these automated machines has been decreasing to the point where they are beginning to be more realistic for pharmacies to use. "Now that it economically makes sense, we are seeing a lot of pharmacies using these machines, which help make them more efficient. Automation assists with the technical dispensing-type process, and it allows the pharmacist to oversee the process and spend more time with patient-focused activities," Brown explained.

Automated dispensing machines are used more in chain, than independent, pharmacies on the retail side, according to Chris Thomsen, president of The Thomsen Group, an independent consulting firm that specializes in retail pharmacy technology and automation.

"There is a growing need for these systems in the retail segment," said Thomsen. "Right now there are five available robots and various counting systems," he said, noting that in the past three years his group has looked at both the market and vendors to see what is being offered.

Thomsen explained that in the past 12-18 months, the regional chains have been focusing on automated workflow first. "They are standardizing the overall process and then deciding whether to bring in, depending on the volume, a counting system or robotics at the very high-volume pharmacy," he said. "Years ago we thought every pharmacy would eventually have a robot or at least would be a candidate for one, but generally only those above 300 or 350 prescriptions a day [retail] will start considering a robot," he commented.

Below that volume, Thomsen believes counting machines are best. "It doesn't make sense to spend $200,000 for a robot when you can spend $40,000 or $50,000 on a counting machine. You have to weigh the return on the investment," he noted. For example, if a regional chain decides to use counting technology in all its pharmacies, the cost has to be multiplied by the number of sites. "They are being careful and there are a lot of options out there now and a lot of choices," he said.

In all pharmacies-retail and outpatient-only about 7% employ robotics, according to Thomsen research. "It is amazing to have five robots in such a small market that actually utilizes robotics," Thomsen remarked, adding that he sees the growth more in automated counting machines and systems that improve work flow. Two of the leaders for automated machines used in pharmacies today are McKesson APS and Parata Systems LLC.

Counting systems

McKesson APS has the AccuMed counting and dispensing cabinet and its Pharmacy WorkFlow software in 200 retail pharmacies across the country, according to Debbie Bedosky, marketing communications manager, McKesson APS, in Pittsburgh. "Together these two products are usually all a pharmacy needs to help reduce patient errors and ease the shortage of pharmacists," she said.

The AccuMed cabinet has a counting speed of up to 10 capsules or pills per second. It supports multiple and simultaneous users. "It has a 60-shoot dram [a small unit of measure relating to the number of pills the machine holds] size and a 360 dram hopper capacity, which helps reduce the replenishment. This also helps save time," Bedosky explained.