Pharmacy automation: Our silent partner in success

March 10, 2016

When it comes to filling Rxs, automation technology improves both accuracy and efficiency, giving pharmacists more time for patient care and oversight of technological functions. It's a good thing.

Jason PoquetteThe role of pharmacists in our current healthcare system is expanding rapidly. Whether we are talking about additional clinical roles within hospitals and specialty practices, medication management, transitions of care, or new opportunities related to prescribing and administering medications, pharmacists do more now than ever before.

At the same time the sheer volume of prescriptions being dispensed in the United States has been rising, with no signs of slowing down. Retail prescription volume is expected to move from a current 4.27 billion to 4.78 billion prescriptions per year by 2021 (http://bit.ly/totalrx). And while an increasing number of pharmacy graduates has helped ease the load created by this growth, the important role played by pharmacy automation in managing this volume cannot be ignored.

Today’s pharmacists, whether they work in community, retail, mail order, LTC, or hospital pharmacies, often work side by side with highly sophisticated automation that enables them to manage workflow more efficiently and to improve accuracy, resulting in better patient safety and outcomes.

When we discuss the role of the pharmacist in the context of our modern pharmacy automation equipment, we can consider the impact of automation on areas such as patient safety, pharmacy efficiency, and future expectations.

See also: What can we do about skyrocketing generic drug prices?

Patient safety

 “To err is human” is a reality known all too well in healthcare settings, and in pharmacy in particular. In an article titled “Reducing Medication Errors through Advances in Automation,” author Laurie L. Briceland, PharmD, begins by stating, “It is evident that at every stage of the MUP [medication use process], human beings are crucially involved, and thus the system is highly error-prone (http://bit.ly/reduceRXerrors). Health systems acknowledge that adverse drug events (ADEs) occur in up to 6.5% of hospitalized patients, with resultant costs estimated to be as high as $4.2 billion annually.

Outpatient pharmacy settings are no different. While significant errors in filling prescriptions may occur only a small percentage of the time, that small percentage becomes important in light of the volume of prescriptions dispensed. This is especially true when the pharmacist workload is more demanding. Automation has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of ADEs related to filling errors.

See also: Pharmacists and transitions of care

Pharmacy efficiency

When it comes to filling prescriptions, automation technologies improve not only accuracy but efficiency as well. This is an important consideration for health systems that are looking to manage costs and also grow business.

A case study done at the Evergreen Hospital Medical Center in Kirkland, Wash., tracked the dispensing work hours saved when robotics were implemented. Use of technology resulted in 58% fewer technician FTEs and 61% fewer pharmacist FTEs for medication dispensing and checking duties. Those FTEs have been redirected to other activities” (http://bit.ly/evergreenstudy).

While some pharmacy professionals may view such data as threatening to the overall job market for pharmacists and technicians, the reality is that in spite of the implementation of such automation, the pharmacy job market is still expanding and predicted to grow over time (http://bit.ly/morepharmjobs).

 

The future of automation

So where is all this going? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m reasonably confident that our use of automation and technology is only going to improve and expand. Pharmacists who want to embrace this will find that their new roles will probably involve more direct care of patients and outcomes, as well as more oversight of the way these technologies function.

Design, assessment, training, and maintenance of these technologies will be critical roles for pharmacists in the future. Automation doesn’t mean automatic improvement. As with any tool, it must be used wisely and maintained carefully.

In fact, as noted by ASHP, “When such devices and the systems that support them are not used appropriately, their complexity, design and function variations, maintenance and education requirements, and other factors can compromise patient safety and have other harmful effects” (http://bit.ly/pharmsysbest).

Through the eyes of technology we have seen a glimpse into the future of pharmacy. In this effort we need the best and brightest pharmacists working alongside reliable pharmacy automation - our silent partner in success.

Jason Poquette, "The Honest Apothecary," is the director for outpatient pharmacy services at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Mass., and an APPE preceptor for the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. Contact him at Jason.pharmacist@gmail.com.