Benefits of Automation

JANUARY 01, 2005
Laura Jerram

Necessity is the mother of invention. The demand for reliable and flexible prescription dispensing services has brought about many improvements in the area of pharmacy automation, as the pressure on community pharmacy to stay competitive remains intense. In response, manufacturers have introduced a series of affordable, scaleddown automated technologies.

Robotic prescription dispensing systems are breathing new life into an industry where time is a luxury and space is at a premium. Kelly and Nancy Selby were overwhelmed by the workload at their community pharmacy in Denton, Tex. "We kept hiring more and more people, but the workflow became more confusing, and we started misplacing scripts,"they said. "We wanted a more professional work environment and a better place for our customers to come for their prescriptions."

Their SP 200 from ScriptPro now fills nearly 50% of their prescriptions, and stress levels in their pharmacy have dropped. "We actually have fewer employees now, but we handle more prescriptions."

Automation Is Key to Saving Time

The Selbys proactively market their compounding services to physicians. "This is time-consuming,"they said, "but key to developing our business. With ScriptPro handling the bulk of our workload, we have time for marketing and the compounding it brings in."

Automated dispensing robots take up roughly the same area as a shelving unit and work well in environments where space is used to capacity. Lack of space was the problem faced by Peter Koo's New York City pharmacy, Starside Drugs, where traffic was high and room for expansion was limited. "My goal in looking for automation was to manage the growing script volume without adding employees," said Koo.

Stress levels and patient care also were key considerations. "A hectic environment is hard on the staff and not conducive to customer service,"he said. "With the robot filling prescriptions, my staff spends less time counting, more time on customer and patient service."

Community pharmacy is not the only area to have benefited from the introduction of automation. At the University of Texas Cancer Outpatient Clinic, the prescription volume was growing by 10% each year, while counter space for the expansion of services remained unchanged.

Manager Lucy Moyer wanted to give her pharmacists more time to spend on the preparation of investigational, injectable, narcotic, and chemotherapy drug prescriptions. "We needed a faster, more efficient method to fill our ‘easier'or less challenging prescriptions," she said.

In fields such as cancer care, the need for counseling is especially important. Patients will tap into the pharmacist's knowledge as an additional resource for information. In addition, patients often need a greater level of compassion and understanding. All this requires time. "We wanted to provide excellent customer service by reducing wait time but still dedicate one pharmacist to patient counseling and serving our patients'needs at the pharmacy window,"explained Moyer.

She felt the benefits of the SP 200 robot immediately: "Our pharmacists have more time to spend on complicated prescriptions, on reviewing patient profiles, and on patient counseling," she said.

Automation Enhances Safety

Automation is about more than saving time and optimizing space. The safety enhancement features add to its attraction. When coupled with signature capture technology, automation enables pharmacists to keep a closer track of orders, avoiding duplication and increasing distribution safety standards.

In Harborview Medical Center, Seattle, Wash, an outpatient pharmacy owned by King County and managed by the University of Washington, medication safety played a crucial role in the decision to introduce automation. Supervisor Cyndy Clegg explained: "Our mission population, which includes the homeless, non-English speaking poor, substance abusers, and mentally ill patients, can present unique challenges."

The risk of dispensing a prescription more than once was high in this pressured environment. "We spent tremendous amounts of time looking through prescription signature logs to make sure a prescription had not already been dispensed to a patient,"she said. "With SP Central's electronic signature capture, we can see immediately who picked up an order."

Safety issues, coupled with a lack of space, made Clegg's decision to automate with ScriptPro an easy one. "The prescription growth rate in the ambulatory pharmacy is 5% to 10% per year, and our physical space is limited. The ScriptPro system provides maximum productivity in a restricted space."

Safety also played a key role in Koo's decision to introduce automation at his New York City pharmacy. The safety features of the SP 200 and SP Central Workflow have given him greater peace of mind. "We leave at the end of the day with confidence that we have dispensed accurately,"he said. "With a staff that's not so tired, we have less chance for human error, too."

The Selbys agreed: "Our accuracy has increased dramatically because of the built-in SP 200 safety checks."

Robotic prescription dispensing systems can be pushed harder than people. "We can process 150 prescriptions in an hour,"said Moyer. Clegg often runs her SP 200 24 hours a day, freeing her staff from the mundane tasks of counting and filling.

In other industries, automation has resulted in job losses, as machines perform with more efficiency and at less expense than their human counterparts. Yet, in a profession gripped by a shortage of qualified personnel, automation looks as if it could be a saving grace.

In pharmacy, automation has not involved replacing people. Instead it has enabled the profession to breathe and regroup.

The issue seems to always relate to time. In the Selbys'case, they have the time to market their business, differentiating themselves from their competition. As for Koo, he has been freeing up his staff to spend more time on patient care, and the staff at Harborview can dispense without having to spend time looking back through signature logs.

Moyer sums it up perfectly. "Now we are able to use our people for professional tasks and use our robots for technical tasks."

Ms. Jerram is a freelance writer based in London, England.