Are Passwords for the Past? Biometrics Forge Future in Pharmacy Robotics

Eileen Oldfield, Associate Editor
Published Online: Monday, December 16, 2013
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At Dennis Pharmacy in Key West, Florida, owner David Alea, RPh, and his staff simply touch their finger to a pad on their dispensing robot to obtain medicine or to refill medication cassettes.

The fingerprint reader, incorporated into operations at the southernmost pharmacy in the United States in 2010, reflects a trend of incorporating biometric scanning and reading devices in the pharmacy.

“Almost every robotic system I know of is going to have that sort of thing being integrated to it, along with bar-code scanners,” Alea said.

An expensive technology initially, biometrics—which includes fingerprint, face, and retina readers—entered pharmacies around the early 2000s.

“At one point, biometric readers were very expensive,” Mike Stotz, senior marketing manager for Kirby Lester LLC, told Pharmacy Times. “The additional cost of biometric technology nowadays is of no significant consequence. The hardware is inexpensive, generally speaking.”

At Kirby Lester, biometrics made its first appearance in 2003, on a verification and counting device, and has since been incorporated into 4 additional devices. The models include a second verification and counting device, 2 dispensing robots, and a verification station. Digital Persona, Inc, provides the biometric capability.

“There were a few reasons [for integrating biometrics],” Stotz said. “Passwords and magnetic cards have limitations. They can be shared, lost, or forgotten. You can’t share or lose a fingerprint.”

For Elizabeth Crew, DPh, owner of Cotton County Drug in Walters, Oklahoma, those specific concerns, coupled with a 4- to 5-person staff, factored into her decision to purchase a device with biometric capabilities.

“We’re such a small pharmacy that it would be a factor if someone saw you type in your code,” she said. “You’re not going to be able to copy someone’s fingerprint. With passwords, [our old system] would stay logged on for a period of time, and someone else could go in.”

A self-described electronics guru, Dr. Crew had a certain level of comfort with introducing a new technology to her pharmacy, and adjusting to the new technology took a relatively short amount of time, she said.

“It helps with the flow of everything,” Dr. Crew said. “It’s improved our time significantly. It allows me more time to talk to the patients, to counsel them.”

In August, technology manufacturer ScriptPro announced entry into a multi-year licensing agreement with biometrics provider Xelios Biometrics, which will provide authentication technology for pharmacy automation and management systems as well.

ScriptPro began testing the technology in the community pharmacy setting more than 10 years ago, ScriptPro CEO and President Mike Coughlin told Pharmacy Times. The systems ScriptPro tested did not work with the speed and accuracy needed to deploy them, until its partnership with Xelios Biometrics.

“We have now arrived at a technology that we think will work well in the demanding community pharmacy, and we are proving this out,” he said.

According to ScriptPro’s press release on the integration, the biometric systems will be used to identify authorized pharmacy staff and to track and store information about who handles a prescription. The technology allows simple and powerful methods to monitor pharmacy operations and processes, the release continued.

The push toward biometrics as an alternative to other forms of 2-factor identification has its roots in new regulatory standards and an increased emphasis on security, according to Coughlin.

“The current and evolving regulatory environment places high demands on a pharmacy to record activities of personnel accessing patient information and participating in the dispensing process,” Coughlin said. “This has increased our perception for the need of powerful biometric solutions in community pharmacies.”

Meanwhile, the notorious shortcomings of password, identification badge readers, and personal identification number combinations are also influencing the push toward biometric technology.

“There appears to be an interest based on the perceived need to document the actions of pharmacy staff,” Coughlin said. “Also, the limits of the 2-factor identification systems currently in use are well recognized.”

ScriptPro’s system requires minimal training and is expected to be much easier to use than existing 2-factor identification systems, Coughlin stated. Additionally, ScriptPro’s biometric-enabled units are similar in cost to its units without biometric capabilities.

Although ScriptPro tested potential systems in community pharmacies, Coughlin expects to see health systems adopt the technology earlier than their community-based counterparts.

“Health systems will likely adopt these systems more quickly due to their high profiles and exposure,” Coughlin said. “Retail pharmacy adoption will then follow as the technology is proven and becomes a defacto standard.”

In Ohio, the state board of pharmacy requires an additional identification process for hospital electronic drug record-keeping systems—meaning providers who prescribe, administer, or dispense dangerous drugs must have not only a password but also a secure means of identification, such as a magnetic card reader, a bar-code or badge reader, or a biometric scanner. According to Board of Pharmacy Public Information Officer Jesse Wimberly, bar-code scanners are a favorite within the state, although he has heard of pharmacies using fingerprint and face scanners.

In Ohio, the technology tends to be seen in health-system pharmacies more frequently than in retail locations, Wimberly noted. In addition, the state maintains a list of approved biometrics, bar-code, and badge reader vendors, and performs compliance checks in pharmacies as they integrate the technology.

“There hasn’t really been a backlash because both parties want that,” he said. “No pharmacy wants to purchase software and, 5 minutes after an inspection, find out we can get in. . . It’s very collaborative between the board, medical facilities, and pharmacies.”

At Grubbs CARE Pharmacy & Medical Equipment, located just blocks from the Capitol building in Washington, DC, a push by Michael Kim, PharmD, toward biometric readers was more of a personnel-related concern. He initially learned about the technology while researching employee time stamp clocks 5 or 6 years ago, after observing employees stamping time cards for coworkers.

“When I came across the biometric option, I thought to myself, ‘That’s the perfect solution,’ because it would require each employee to use their fingerprint to clock in and out,” Dr. Kim told Pharmacy Times. “It meant that coworkers could no longer punch in or out for their friends.”

Dr. Kim has since incorporated the technology into the counting machines used in his pharmacy, which process scripts for 2000 to 3000 patients. Like Dr. Crew, he’s found the technology very easy to set up and incorporate into pharmacy operations.

“I felt that biometric scanners were very simple to implement and use by the staff,” he said. “You just place your finger on the scanner, and that’s it. How much easier could it get?”

Dr. Crew and Mr. Alea attest to the ease of maintaining their systems. Despite concerns about Oklahoma dust, Dr. Crew found the fingerprint scanner easy to clean, as did Mr. Alea.

“I’m astonished at the level of reliability of the system,” Mr. Alea said. “It’s no different than a car. As long as you treat it right, it will last for years.”

At Kirby Lester, the systems include a fail-safe in the event that the scanner malfunctions or, in rare cases, when the reader cannot detect a fingerprint.

“Kirby Lester devices, and I can assume that most other pharmacy technology, has a fail-safe built in where the pharmacy staff member can type in his or her user ID and password onscreen if the biometric scanner isn’t working, or if they are one of the minority where their fingerprint’s arches, loops, and whorls aren’t prominent and thus have difficulty scanning,” Stotz said.

“One of our employees plays steel-string guitar, so his fingertips are worn down and calloused,” he added. “He uses his pinkie, or he uses the touch screen to type in his ID and password.”

Alea, a self-described technology guy who notes that his pharmacy was the third in Florida to incorporate computers into its operations, sees further uses for the scanning technology and its ability to track the who, what, where, and when of daily operations.

“In the future, I see that the biometric readers could be tied into a narcotics cabinet, which we all have,” he said. “It’s definitely in pharmacy operations, and it’s going to be moving forward. It’s definitely got potential.”

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