Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has kept the US health care industry on its toes since the first case was identified on our shores in January 2020. In a matter of months, cases skyrocketed from single digits to millions, requiring health care facilities and pharmacies to adapt quickly during a time in which labor, money, and resources grew scarce.

As stay-at-home orders lifted and states began to reopen, some as early as mid-April, pharmacies were faced with a “new normal” and a new task: How can we continue to fight this pandemic and how can we be more prepared for the next one?

COVID-19’s impact on pharmacies
Community pharmacies are listed as essential businesses, as they remain on the frontlines of public health by serving as the direct point of access for their patients. A study conducted by the National Community Pharmacists Association found that nearly 90% of community pharmacies were applying for small business federal aid under the CARES Act to assist in weathering the COVID-19 storm.

Additionally, 66% are experiencing negative cash flow issues as COVID-19-related expenses, pharmacy direct and indirect remuneration (DIR) fees, and decreasing reimbursement make it difficult to stay afloat. With the pandemic continuing to alter how health facilities operate, pharmacists are seeking alternative strategies to navigate these murky waters. Thankfully, in a world increasingly influenced by technology, there is ample opportunity to leverage automation within pharmacies that can not only improve operations, but support patient wellness.

Benefits of automated packaging machines in a COVID-19 era
It’s crucial that pharmacies across the country learn the advantages of automated packaging now, to be ready for when, not if, a pandemic such as COVID-19 happens again. Consider the following 4 benefits to packaging automation today so your facility can be ready for tomorrow.

Touch-free packaging and verification
During a time in which “contactless” and “touch-free” have become household phrases, multi-dose medication packaging machines do exactly that. Packaging and verification of medication is done automatically through these machines, verifying the size, color, shape, and amount of each pill in every pouch to check them quickly, accurately, and safely.

While manual count-and-pour methods touch each patients’ prescriptions, automated systems keep patients and pharmacists safe by reducing contact. In addition to providing less hands-on interaction with medications, automation also greatly reduces the time-consuming process of manual verification.

A 2002 study published in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association showed that unit-of-use packaging alone saved more than 46.5 minutes per 100 prescriptions filled compared with count-and-pour dispensing.

Social distancing
Automated packaging also helps pharmacies and their patients adhere to social distancing guidelines put in place by the CDC. For patients, packaging automation can compile all of their medications in a single place for a longer duration, eliminating the need for multiple trips to the pharmacy each month for separate prescription pickups.

Pharmacists also benefit, as these machines eliminate the need for several pharmacists in a confined area at once, allowing more room for pharmaceutical professionals to maintain a distance of 6 feet apart.

Improved patient adherence through medication synchronization
While COVID-19 is currently top of mind, the lack of medication non-adherence is severe and continues to grow. Nearly 50% of patients with chronic diseases do not take their medications correctly, costing the US health care system nearly $300 billion each year.

In this pandemic era and beyond, we’ve already seen, and will continue to see, worsening adherence due to a variety of correlating factors. Reduced financial resources, an avoidance of care, pharmacy closures, medication shortages, and contaminations in the drug supply are just a few of the ways that COVID-19 may affect patient adherence.

To combat this ongoing issue, as well as help improve efficiency during these trying times, pharmacies can adopt medication synchronization (med sync), in which a patient’s entire prescription regimen is synchronized to be refilled on the exact same day of the month, eliminating the need for separate call-ins and pickups. Using multi-dose pouch packaging is a great way to make sure your customers stay synchronized every month.

In fact, med sync has the ability to lead to 2 to 3.5 additional prescription refills per participating customer over the course of a year. If you had an additional 100 customers on med sync, taking 5 to 7 medications per month, this would be up to an additional 2450 prescriptions that you could fill each year, generating an additional $24,500 in additional gross profit.

Operational efficiencies 
Having automated packaging will drive cost savings for pharmacies currently experiencing reduced revenues and higher operating costs. Pharmacies that are offering multi-dose adherence pouch packaging have demonstrated that they can attract a minimum of 10 new customers per month, equating to an additional 120 new customers per year.

With the average customer taking 5 to 7 medications per month, this could generate more than $100,000 in new annual gross profit. Pharmacy Star ratings can also increase with an improved adherence program and DIR fee pullbacks can decrease, which for some pharmacies can equate to up to $72,000 per year.

What the future holds
As the trend toward advanced technology accelerates, what impact will pharmaceutical automation have on the future of pharmacy? With automated equipment growing more efficient, pharmacies and their professionals are quickly learning that they can’t afford not to automate.

Lowered costs of automated systems put automation at reach for even the smallest of pharmacies and community pharmacies will become safer and more efficient as technology continues to evolve.

Although we can’t know when COVID-19 will subside or when the next crisis will happen, packaging automation is important year-round. By offering touch-free service, social distancing capabilities, operational efficiencies, and improved patient adherence, packaging automation will benefit pharmacies today and into the future.

About the Author
Kevin Copsey serves as the business unit director for Euclid® Medical Products, a leading provider of pharmacy automation equipment with a focus on helping pharmacies, long-term care facilities and third-party re-packagers improve operations and overall patient health. Kevin leads operations, new product development, customer service and business development teams. For more information, visit euclidmedicalproducts.com.