Automation: It's Not About Technology. It's About Time.

Tom Rhoads
Published Online: Friday, October 5, 2012



Saving time and improving safety benefit the pharmacy and the patient alike.


It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement surrounding new technology. From electric cars to 3-D televisions, yesterday’s science fiction is popping up faster than ever in our living rooms, driveways, and offices.

For years now we’ve heard the buzz about robots in the pharmacy—which is promising, to be sure. But in the real world, promising is not quite enough to pay for the privilege of changing the way you operate. Just as with any business decision, there has to be a solid case for investing in pharmacy automation. These aren’t the kinds of “shiny objects” that you purchase on a whim.

In fact, the most important factor in determining the value of a robotic system isn’t the system itself. It’s the valuable byproducts it can create—time and safety.

This is why we challenge our pharmacy partners to look past the technology investment and answer these 3 questions:
  1. What percentage of total prescription dispensing can be lifted from your staff?
  2. How much “touch time” is required to maintain performance?
  3. What can you do with the time saved to improve profitability?
It’s best to start at the end and work backward. If a pharmacy’s leadership doesn’t have a strategy for growth, there won’t be enough incentive, or focus, to develop good answers to the first 2 questions.

Times Have Changed

From my perspective as a pharmacy automation developer, I saw firsthand how the early days of automation were rife with big excitement and wild claims. As an industry, we have to acknowledge that we didn’t always live up to the hype. Automation had a lot of potential. But without a big picture understanding of how to integrate this tool into the overall pharmacy work flow—or how to help employees make the transition—automation remained an idea that was a little ahead of its time.

Many pharmacists remained unconvinced about the value of automation. Pharmacist Abe Hutto, the owner of LAB Discount Drugs in Waynesboro, Mississippi, is emblematic of the mindset, saying: “I looked at robotic dispensing solutions for about 4 years” before taking the plunge. He’s also a perfect example of the many pharmacists who discovered the wait was worth it. In the intervening years, the technology has improved dramatically and the business case can now be supported by predictable, validated outcomes.

Automation’s Time Has Come

Here are just a few examples:
  • In a pilot program recently undertaken by Rite Aid, the retailer implemented next-generation automation and achieved an incremental labor savings of 11% within the first 90 days. At United Supermarkets in Lubbock, Texas, an upgrade to next-generation robotics at 2 of its 43 stores achieved utilization rates near 50%.
  • Some independent pharmacy owners are reporting that customer wait times dropped from 15 minutes to 5 minutes. They are cutting back on restocking and replenishing, no longer having to submit the same order every couple of days.
Clearly, the chatter around automation is changing. Always pushing forward, pharmacists set the bar high for their expectations of automation providers. And it took a few years—and a few hard knocks—to catch up and deliver consistently on the promise. Today, our conversations have moved beyond “What can it do?” and “Will it work?” to focus on the real heart of the issue: “How much time will you save, and what can you do with that time?”

Making the Most of Your Time

With staff time savings running up to 50 to 60 hours a week, or more, options abound.

Abe Hutto’s answer: “We do home IV infusion, so now 1 technician can be dedicated entirely to that service. We’re going to focus a little more on medication therapy management, and get into things like weight control and healthy lifestyle programs, now that we have the time to do so.”

Wiley’s Pharmacy in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, works with a lot of assisted-living facilities, and automation has strengthened that business. “We were finding that accrediting organizations were pushing long-term care facilities to move to a more organized and distinctive system,” Stephen Wiley says. “Our strip packaging automation gives customers a safer, more effective distribution method.” Wiley also noted, “We won’t need to add additional staff as we grow, and we won’t have to replace anyone.”

From larger players like Rite Aid and United Supermarkets to smaller independents, the focus is on customer service and basket size. But in an era of thinning margins, pharmacists don’t have the opportunity to add resources to accomplish more—they have to find ways to do more with less. So, pharmacy leaders at all levels are pursuing competitive advantages anywhere they can find them, whether by diversifying, differentiating, or streamlining. All of these strategies share 1 common requirement—time. Staff time to dedicate to higher-level, higher-value activities, to support sales, or to simply do more with the resources available.

Making the Most of Staff Time

One concern pharmacists shared is how staff will react to automation. When things go well, automation is often a technician’s best friend. In surveys of team members before and after the United Supermarkets launch, for example, satisfaction scores went up dramatically, including a 72% increase in the perceived value to daily pharmacy operations.

Abe Hutto is even more direct: “My staff would quit if I got rid of automation! It just takes away the burden and removes the drudgery and busywork. It makes life much easier.”

Time for What Matters Most: Customer Care

What it ultimately comes down to is being able to offer better service. For many pharmacies, “face time” with customers is how they distinguish themselves, and how they grow. Automation gives them more time to focus on patients.

Cary Fischer, certified pharmacy technician at Lock Drug in Bastrop, Texas, has seen what a difference the personal touch can make. “I just got a thank-you card for helping my customer with a prescription she’d been working on for a year; she was almost in tears. I couldn’t provide that kind of service if I handled all our prescriptions.”

Time Is of the Essence

So, has the time finally come for pharmacy automation? Based on what we’re seeing, pharmacy’s answer is an emphatic “Yes!” I hear regularly from pharmacists who recognize that to be competitive over the coming years, they’ll have to have robotics—and they’re telling their peers to get on board. Abe Hutto also advises others to act soon. He says, “If a pharmacy is doing 175 scripts or more a day, it’s time to look at automation.”


Tom Rhoads is chief executive officer of Parata Systems, a Durham, North Carolina–based pharmacy automation provider and partner with Pharmacy Times for the Next-Generation Pharmacist TM awards program.




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