Where is pharmacy automation headed, and how will it be put to use by pharmacists and the companies that employ them?
In the era of health reform, evidence-based medicine and health information technology, those questions have become fundamental for pharmacy leaders. How retail pharmacies invest in technology and harness the flood of patient and drug utilization data it generates will determine, in large part, the future of the profession and its relevance to a fast-changing health system seeking new cost-saving solutions and more effective approaches to patient care and disease prevention.
More than ever, technology is melding itself to every aspect of pharmacy operations. For proof, one need look no further than the counter and workstations within most pharmacies in 2014, where devices ranging from basic automated counting machines to robotic dispensers, on-screen imaging and scan-based verification and tracking software are shifting more and more of the dispensing workflow to technicians and central-fill pharmacies.
At its heart, “medicine is rapidly moving from a ‘product’ industry to a ‘knowledge’ industry,” said Mike Coughlin, president, CEO and CFO of ScriptPro. “Pharmacy operators who expect to participate at a high level in the knowledge era of medicine that we are now moving into will need systems to acquire knowledge, embed it in their organizations and make it available at the right place, at the right time, at the right price and with a plan for how it is going to be paid for.”
To that end, “automation suppliers should provide advanced pharmacy management and workflow systems that can support this mission,” Coughlin told Drug Store News. “The systems should be overlaid with telepharmacy support that promotes the outward reach of pharmacy services, enables knowledge and expertise to be shared across the enterprise systematically and instantaneously, and electronically documents findings, decisions, interventions and outcomes, and makes this information available internally and to external stakeholders.”
At least in theory, automation and central-fill outsourcing are giving pharmacists more time for patient counseling and participation in the collaborative care models spawned by the Affordable Care Act. Also driving the transformation is the increasing role of shared patient data in health decisions, and the growing reliance on pharmacists to be the go-to resource for accessible health-and-wellness services like medication therapy management and medication adherence programs.
Increasingly, pharmacy automation is about generating and managing information — and using that data to integrate all aspects of the patient-engagement process with a network of connected health providers, via an accountable care organization, collaborative care initiative or other type of integrated care platform. “Essential technology will be in the area of software, customer apps and technologies that allow the patient and healthcare provider to be connected and interactive,” said Christopher Thomsen, VP business development for Kirby Lester.
To that end, he said, “training for new pharmacy professionals is going to extend into areas that would surprise long-time pharmacists because the patient-pharmacist interaction stakes are being raised quickly. Every interaction will be notated, reviewed and rated, so pharmacists and pharmacy management are going to need to embrace ... technology as a vehicle to interact with their patients. Filling prescriptions will be relegated to technicians and robotic equipment that can do it faster, safer and more effectively.”
Health reform is accelerating the need for transformative technology that can enable the profession’s shift to information-driven patient care specialist. Doyle Jensen, EVP global business development for Innovation, said, “one of the largest opportunities within the Affordable Care Act is for pharmacists to become providers and offer pharmacy services.”
For that reason, he said, pharmacists and managers should focus on “what areas of pharmacy they’re ... engaged in now that they can automate in order to redeploy pharmacists and engage the customer with ... a complete approach to pharmacy services like adherence.”
For that to occur, Jensen told DSN, “you need a platform, some type of application to engage the consumer, and the hardware built around that. Because ... the only time the pharmacy provider is going to get paid for this service is if they can actually impact [patient] behavior. And in order to impact behavior,” he added, pharmacies, physicians and health plans “need to be provided with data that’s as close to real time as possible.”
Generating and managing patient data for better decision-making, more effective collaboration with other health providers, better patient outcomes and more cost-effective care will be critical to the future of the profession, technology leaders agree. “Making data more available and actionable for retail pharmacy teams will be the biggest technological development in the coming years for retail pharmacy,” said Frank Sheppard, CEO of Ateb. “Pharmacy already uses data every day for multiple dispensing-related tasks, but the ability to use that data in new and innovative ways that bring value to a broader set of constituents will be the key in how pharmacy evolves over the next few years.”
The maturing of the prescription drug market — prescription sales have plateaued in recent years, by all accounts — has made that search for a more clinical and engaged pharmacy practice model more urgent than ever, according to Ateb’s top manager. “Pharmacy must find new ways to ... provide value to patients,” Sheppard told DSN. “The good news is pharmacy is in the best position to help solve the growing problem of access and affordability in health care. Using the data pharmacy already has and ... integrating new sources of information allows pharmacy to proactively assist patients to achieve their healthcare objectives.”
Meanwhile, technology vendors continue to boost the power, ease of use and connectivity of hardware and software. “Since the invention of the electronic portable digital tablet in England in the late 1960s, breakthroughs have only continued to revolutionize the pharmacy industry,” said Lisa Flowers, a spokeswoman for technology provider RxMedic. “The 21st century ushered in verification systems and sophisticated imaging features, as well as the capacity to store large amounts of data about drugs being dispensed.”
“The coming era in pharmacy technology is undoubtedly going to be defined by the consolidating of tasks that once had to be done by hand,” she said. The widespread application of automated and robotic dispensing technology means “pharmacists and pharmacy technicians now have more time to address patient care, insurance matters and new healthcare initiatives, such as medication adherence and medication therapy management.
“By eliminating the need for manual counting and filling prescriptions, existing and developing technology can help to assuage or outright eliminate the concerns voiced by large numbers of professionals,” Flowers said. “The upshot of it all is that pharmacists will be able to look forward to doing what they like most: working with patients and helping one-on-one to improve their quality of life.”
This ability of workplace automation to free highly trained pharmacists from the more mundane and mechanical aspects of prescription dispensing is critical to the profession’s future, technology vendors agree. “It’s not about putting pharmacists out of work. It’s actually putting them back to work providing a true difference in health care ... [by] practicing pharmacy,” Innovation’s Jensen said.
With that in mind, he told DSN, Innovation is “looking to add technology that has never been brought to market before, to enable the provider to redeploy the pharmacist and impact patient behavior.”
Here’s a look at some of the latest offerings from technology providers:
Kirby Lester continues to enhance a suite of products aimed at automating all facets of dispensing workflow, from countertop automated pill-counting and verification devices like the KL1Plus to its growing KL series of robotic dispensing machines. Its newest is the KL100, a compact, freestanding and fully automated robot with a capacity to manage 50% or more of a pharmacy’s daily prescription orders. “We will continue to develop technology tools — software and hardware — that are space-saving and cost-effective, that positively impact labor, and that improve efficiency and patient safety,” Thomsen said.
For Innovation, gearing for the future means expanding its focus beyond robotics and other hardware and software to “providing a complete solution for clients,” Jensen said. The company is working with clients on new central-fill technologies and new ways to connect pharmacists with other health providers. In addition, he said, “we’re going to adding a whole angle to this adherence platform to bring the pharmacy into the home itself ... at the point of consumption of the medication.” Details will be forthcoming later this year, he said.
ScriptPro is enhancing “telepharmacy-enabled systems that assimilate information and systematically enforce procedures to make sure drug products are properly identified and matched to patients’ needs and clinical protocols,” Coughlin said. Its telepharmacy offerings “are able to deal with investigational drugs, specialty pharmacy products and REMS procedures, and can integrate patient genomic information into clinical decision support processes to bring this knowledge to bear in screening individual patients for drug effectiveness and appropriate therapeutic ranges,” he added.
Ateb is working with chains like Thrifty White to provide turnkey solutions to their drug adherence efforts via medication synchronization solutions, among other initiatives. “Ateb’s Time My Meds medication synchronization solution and our Patient Management Access Portal organize pharmacy data in a clear and actionable manner that facilitates the pharmacy team to make a dramatic, positive impact on adherence and improve patients’ health,” Sheppard said. The company also is “actively working with our pharmacy partners to develop new paths [with payers, employers, hospitals and third-party administrators] for the pharmacy to be remunerated for these incredible results.”
VoicePort specializes in helping pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies automate their customer-service communications via interactive speech recognition, as well as online and mobile applications. The company applies that technology to PharmaPhonetics, a suite of solutions that go well beyond IVR technology by leveraging “automated self-service applications that combine technology, analytics and pharmacy operations expertise to deliver a full suite of personalized multichannel patient communication and adherence applications,” according to Adam Vargulick, VoicePort’s director of product management.
“As the Affordable Care Act is implemented, the impact will be felt across all areas of the healthcare delivery system,” he said. “VoicePort is committed to help its clients understand these operational impacts.”
Adherence and medication compliance, Vargulick added, “will continue to drive our product development.” To that end, VoicePort has developed a HIPAA-compliant automated patient-prompt and data-capture program called SynchroScript. The program helps pharmacies adopt an automated medication synchronization offering for patients, boosting drug adherence by synchronizing all their prescriptions each month and giving pharmacies the tools to analyze proportion-of-days-covered compliance rates and other data.
PharmaSmart, which specializes in kiosk-based cardiovascular diagnostics and out-of-office biometric screening solutions, is setting its sights on a June rollout of the PharmaSmart 2000D. The cutting-edge patient screening station includes a wide range of diagnostic tools and conveniences beyond a blood-pressure monitor. Among them: a patented system for detecting arterial fibrillation that could help pharmacists intervene with patients to prevent strokes. The sit-down kiosk, which is compact enough to install in virtually any pharmacy department, also includes a recently patented arm cuff for obese patients, a pregnancy risk factor test, a barcode scanner, a smart scale for measuring body mass index and built-in communications capabilities for uploading test results via wireless or USB port.
The device, said PharmaSmart COO and general manager Ashton Maaraba, gives pharmacists “a hands-free, real-time connection with all critical patient biometrics” and “the opportunity to monitor conditions and improve outcomes.” Those capabilities, he asserts, will be critical to pharmacy’s future as a full partner in the health system.
“Retailers cannot fully optimize their latest pharmacy objectives — specifically those linked to improving patient outcomes, such as MTM and ... disease prevention — unless they drive participation rates to a level that can be accurately measured,” he said. “PharmaSmart’s new product resolves that problem.”
RxMedic’s newest breakthrough is the RM64, which it markets as “the fastest robotic dispensing system on the market.” Introduced in July 2013, the robot is fast: It’s capable of filling as many as five prescriptions per minute, the company claims, can count any pill size or shape, and interfaces with any pharmacy management system. The RM64 also provides photo verification with a digital image of each prescription that it stores for future reference. The system brings to four the number of high-tech pharmacy dispensing systems developed by RxMedic, including the Automated Dispensing System robot that can dispense 256 different medicines and also features on-screen photo verification; the Eyecon Visual Counting System; and RxMedic ACS, an automated pill-counting system that can be scaled for any pharmacy with countertop, endcap or freestanding models. “Pharmacy robotics are changing the way a pharmacy operates,” Flowers reported.
“It’s up to the retailers to make the decision which direction they want to take their pharmacy and total health and wellness strategy,” Maaraba said. When making decisions about what technology they invest in to stay abreast of a shifting and increasingly interconnected health system, he said, pharmacy managers must choose between “the cyclical path, or the path that will drive a sustained revenue channel that keeps them competitive throughout the marketplace.”
“It’s certainly not an easy decision for the retailers,” Maaraba added. “All we can do is continue to innovate and streamline solutions ... they can benefit from.”
“PHARMACY OPERATORS WHO EXPECT TO PARTICIPATE AT A HIGH LEVEL IN THE KNOWLEDGE ERA OF MEDICINE THAT WE ARE NOW MOVING INTO WILL NEED SYSTEMS TO ACQUIRE KNOWLEDGE, EMBED IT IN THEIR ORGANIZATIONS AND MAKE IT AVAILABLE AT THE RIGHT PLACE, AT THE RIGHT TIME, AT THE RIGHT PRICE AND WITH A PLAN FOR HOW IT IS GOING TO BE PAID FOR.” MIKE COUGHLIN, PRESIDENT, CEO AND CFO, SCRIPTPRO
“[MANAGERS SHOULD FOCUS ON] WHAT AREAS OF PHARMACY THEY’RE ... ENGAGED IN NOW THAT THEY CAN AUTOMATE IN ORDER TO REDEPLOY PHARMACISTS AND ENGAGE THE CUSTOMER WITH ... A COMPLETE APPROACH TO PHARMACY SERVICES LIKE ADHERENCE.” DOYLE JENSEN, EVP GlOBAl BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT,INNOVATION
“MAKING DATA MORE AVAILABLE AND ACTIONABLE FOR RETAIL PHARMACY TEAMS WILL BE THE BIGGEST TECHNOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE COMING YEARS FOR RETAIL PHARMACY.” FRANK SHEPPARD, CEO, ATEB