Automation helps improve outcomes, provides faster, cheaper Rx services

With community pharmacies being called on to provide a wider range of services, drug stores across the country are adapting new technologies to ensure that they can meet the evolving needs of their patients and strengthen their role in the nation’s healthcare system.

Chronic patients may only see their primary care physician a handful of times per year, but they see their pharmacists two to three times a month, on average.

Healthcare experts say that this frequent access to patients creates a huge opportunity for pharmacists to become central players in patients’ care. However, they note, it also creates a need to make pharmacies more efficient.

With a growing number of pharmacists providing such services as medication therapy management and immunizations, and the prescription-filling process becoming increasingly complex, those in the industry say there is a heightened need for speed and the ability to ensure that the various systems employed in a typical community pharmacy work together.

“There’s so many steps in filling a prescription,” said Miranda Rochol, VP product and strategy at Healthcare Data Solutions, a supplier of real-time prescriber verification services. “It can be a challenge to integrate all of the different systems.”

Healthcare Data Solutions is among a handful of technology providers that continues to tweak its offering to meet pharmacies’ changing needs. For instance, Rochol said, the company’s technology runs more than 70 different validations in a matter of milliseconds to ensure that a physician is authorized to prescribe a certain class of drugs.

The system, she said, helps eliminate prescribing errors and the related fines that fall on the backs of pharmacies when these errors occur.

While the changing role of the pharmacist is dictating that community pharmacies employ a wider range of systems, automation and counting technology remains at the heart of most pharmacies’ operations.

According to a report released this spring by the market research group BCC Research, the worldwide market for pharmacy automation is expected to grow by nearly 9% a year over the next five years to nearly $4.9 billion in 2018.

Technology providers say that adding more functionality to automation systems will be crucial in ensuring that these systems continue to play a central role in pharmacies’ technology strategies. Systems to promote adherence and compliance, and those that monitor patients in their ambulatory settings, will continue to become more prominent in pharmacies, with automation also taking on added significance.

Automation, technology providers contend, will continue to improve dispensing safety and efficiency, and will be at the center of pharmacies’ efforts to provide the high-touch and personal care that patients and providers are demanding.

Most suppliers have already embarked on expanding the functionality of their systems to meet the changing needs of pharmacies and patients.

Over the past year, for example, ScriptPro has continued to add functionality to its automation systems, including the use of biometrics to ensure that only authorized pharmacy staff handle prescriptions, as well as QR bar codes on prescription labels that help patients manage refills and make communicating with their pharmacy easier.

For several years, technology proponents and public health officials have touted sophisticated pharmacy technology as a critical component in reining in healthcare spending. Among the most-often mentioned ways to control costs are the increased use of electronic prescribing and electronic health records. Both technologies have been expanding across the healthcare spectrum in recent years, with industry insiders and government regulators saying the technologies hold great promise for driving down healthcare costs going forward.

Surescripts, the nation’s largest health information network, reported that it routed more than 1 billion electronic prescriptions last year. Nearly three-quarters of the nation’s office-based physicians and 9870 of the chain pharmacies across the country have adapted e-prescribing. Usage among independents last year increased by 1170, according to Surescripts.

While slower to become part of pharmacies’ everyday operating routines, electronic health records got a boost earlier this year when Walgreens, CVS Caremark, Kroger, Rite Aid and Safeway pledged to support the Blue Button initiative, a public-private partnership between healthcare providers and the federal government that seeks to give people greater access to their electronic health information in order to help them manage their care.

Technology suppliers also have been working to broaden the use of electronic health records.

Last month, QS/1 rolled out its ESI Rx History interface. The company said the medication reconciliation program enables pharmacies to instantly retrieve a patient’s medication history through QS/1’s PowerLine.

“Using ESI Rx History allows pharmacies to add their patient’s information to the database,” said Michael Ziegler, QS/1’s marketing and analyst senior manager. “If the patient ever is admitted to a hospital, this will give doctors immediate access to the most current medications the patient is taking.”

The debut of the new interface came less than a week after QS/1’s introduction of a new tool to help pharmacists provide better care.

Through a partnership with VUCA Health, QS/1 is offering a variety of services, including on-demand prescription-specific videos, to engage patients and strengthen customer relationships.

The technology allows pharmacies to print QR codes on prescription labels linking patients to VUCA Health videos that review prescription safety, provide alerts to a medication’s possible side effects and detail ways to limit reactions.

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