Telepharmacy pulls hospital through storm


A winter storm kept personnel from reaching the hospital. But all the patients got their meds, thanks to telepharmacists.

Winter Storm Jonas hit North Carolina pretty hard. In January, the storm dumped ice and snow across the state. Flights were grounded, classes were canceled at major universities, and many schools were closed.

During the storm, surgeries at the North Carolina Specialty Hospital in Durham were canceled and no new patients were admitted. However, there were patients in the hospital who required the services of a pharmacist.

The severe weather prevented some personnel, including pharmacists, from getting to work. But it didn’t hinder the pharmacists who verified doctors' orders for hospitalized patients.

Remote access

These certified pharmacists in their home offices far from the storm were able to verify orders remotely, thanks to technology from San Francisco, Calif.-based PipelineRx.

Working in conjunction with hospital IT personnel, PipelineRx pharmacists gained access to patients' electronic health records (EHR) remotely via a secure channel such as virtual private network (VPN).

During the storm, PipelineRx pharmacists processed orders and nurses were able to get medications up to the patient floors.

See also: Telepharmacy offers hospitals dramatic cost savings

Burdens lessened

Lindsay BurkeThe ability to have a pharmacist verify orders remotely decreases the pharmacy’s burden or can eliminate the need for the pharmacist on call, said Lindsay Burke, PharmD, director of pharmacy at North Carolina Specialty Hospital.

"For pharmacists who get called in the middle of the night if there is a problem, they're not calling you with a dosing question, they're calling PipelineRx," said Burke.

"That helps us considerably, because we're not awakened at three in the morning for calls that don't require us to be there. It lessens the call burden."

At present, the hospital employs the services of PipelineRx over weekends, on holidays, and during weather emergencies.

Cost-effective tool

Brian RobertsFor certain hospitals, using telepharmacy can be a cost-effective tool.

"Our goal is to be the leader on the telepharmacy side and help hospitals gain synergy so that they can operate efficiently. We can help stretch their dollar further," said Brian Roberts, CEO of PipelineRx.

"Hospitals value and use our service consistently to help them manage their pharmacy operations," said Roberts, adding,  "We know how that hospital works; all the appropriate policies and procedures are documented in our software for smooth operating transitions."

In the current economic climate, Roberts noted, many small hospitals face having to close. Using telepharmacy is one way that they can save money and stay operational while at the same time providing 24/7 pharmacy coverage.

See also: Telepharmacy: Deliver personalized, specialized care


A range of needs

According to Roberts, PipelineRx employs about 120 experienced hospital pharmacists (PharmDs) working from home offices around the country. They serve more than just specialty or small hospitals, although most of PipelineRx's customers have between 25 beds and 200 beds.

“We have customers between 200 and 1,000 beds - large medical centers where they give us a wing or a portion of their hospital," said Roberts.

For example, PipelineRx might cover the OB/GYN wing because it doesn't necessarily need a pharmacist around 24/7. Or in some cases, said Roberts, a facility might not need to employ a full-time night pharmacist or isn’t staffed for every emergency that could happen.  Some hospitals that need 1.5 fulltime equivalents (FTEs) at night might outsource half the FTEs to PipelineRx, where they work side-by-side with the nighttime pharmacist.

"We give them the ability to move their business more to a basis of variable costs, rather than fixed costs,” said Roberts.

Flexible applications

PipelineRx's client base includes surgery centers, long-term-care centers, and rehab hospitals.

Recently, the company started selling or leasing its technology back to large hospital chains. Roberts noted that the technology could be used by a 20-hospital health system.

"We help them share labor among those 20 hospitals because they're networked, and they can bring down their costs of operating the hospital."

He continued, "There are two sides to the business now, the services side, where we support North Carolina Specialty Hospital, and a technology infrastructure that helps hospital systems to do the same thing."

Anthony Vecchione is a healthcare journalist based in New Jersey.

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