Can Pharmacy Automation Help Solve the Industry’s Labor Shortage?


As staffing pressures continue straining pharmacy operations, the right automation solutions offer a path to driving growth and maintaining safety standards, all while better utilizing current personnel.

Time is the one element no one can control. It marches on and waits for no man, as the poets say. Or can you control it? Although everyone is dealt 24 hours in a single day, how businesses leverage and utilize that time makes the difference between stagnation and growth, or marginal care and quality management.

Pharmacies have learned to leverage the advantages that automation solutions provide in ways that make a meaningful impact on their businesses. Automation has given staff more time to focus on patient care and it has supplied pharmacists and technicians with advanced verification technologies that have improved accuracy, reduced the risk of medication errors, and improved patient safety.

Female pharmacist using a computer while managing the drug stock in a contemporary pharmacy with modern technology and automation

Image credit: kzenon |

The Time Crunch Is Real and Widespread

Pharmacies across the nation are facing an unprecedented labor crunch. Open positions can remain unfilled for months, and in some areas, the vacancy persists for a year or more. Experienced pharmacy technicians are demanding higher wages for retention, with one story from the field reporting that technicians are able to demand salaries 33% higher than a year ago. Industry indicators and reports confirm that pharmacy labor issues are persisting into 2024.1 Relief is not in sight as the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) reports a double-digit percentage drop in pharmacy school applications (down 64% from 2012 to 2022).2

This staffing shortage poses major problems for pharmacies trying to expand health care services that focus more on patient care and trying to grow their businesses. Pharmacies are expanding into new revenue streams like adherence packaging or contracting with long-term care facilities to serve a growing niche market, fueled by an increased emphasis on at-home care. However, this lack of available, qualified help to handle any increased workload can cause pharmacies to become victims of their own success.

Further pressure on pharmacies comes from the Equitable Community Access to Pharmacist Services Act, which enables Medicare beneficiaries to have access to pharmacist-provided vaccination, testing, and treatment services.

The solution is to implement advanced pharmacy automation equipment solutions, paired with integrated software, to shed light on opportunities for efficiency. Pharmacy automation equipment, such as pouch and blister adherence packagers, inspection systems, and vial fillers, does not replace any members of the current workforce. It does allow pharmacies to accomplish more with the current staff members and redirect their activities. Technicians are freed from mundane, time-consuming tasks, accuracy and patient safety are improved, and there is often a quick return on investment as pharmacies can pursue new business opportunities.

Smart Software Frees Up Technicians’ Time

The right automation technology paired with intelligent software can streamline operations in several key ways, freeing technicians to focus on higher priority work.

  • Drug Substitution Handling: Software that allows pharmacies to predefine an equivalency or a drug that can automatically substitute for another eliminates downtime when pharmacies face drug shortages or need to make National Drug Code changes. This keeps production moving with preapproved substitutions and helps avoid time delays technicians must devote to either conducting research on substitutions or waiting on a pharmacist’s approval.
  • Production Planning: By automatically factoring in delivery schedules, inventory levels, and production capacities, smart software can determine the optimal order to run medication batches. This avoids situations in which the wrong batch is run first, requiring reassignments or overtime to meet deadlines.
  • Simplified Exception Handling: For medications that do not use standard canisters, systems with lighted tray filling stations guide technicians on which medication and quantity needs filling next, displaying just one at a time. This reduces the confusion and errors that can occur when handling multiple open medication cells.

Patient Safety Improves in Tandem With Improved Accuracy

The second major gain pharmacies experience with today’s pharmacy automation systems is the advanced verification technology that improves accuracy and patient safety. This becomes especially significant when considering staff shortages or the difficulties training inexperienced staff members. For example, verification technologies provide images of contents and details on what verification process actions were taken and by whom, giving you traceable reports and proof of accuracy.

Another way pharmacy automation systems have advanced significantly in recent years is the improved ability to accurately identify and sort pills based on various characteristics including color. An automated system can distinguish between different hues and shades of color at the individual pill level, to allow for more precise identification and sorting.

The systems can analyze factors such as hue, saturation, and brightness to differentiate between pills, rather than just scanning for general attributes such as a single-color category (i.e., red), or pill shape. This advancement allows pharmacies to set much tighter parameters for what constitutes an acceptable pill image for each specific medication. Instead of categorizing “red” within a broad range of what might or might not be an acceptable shade, the software can more precisely pinpoint the acceptable and specific shade of red to identify the correct medication or pill.

This precise color matching technology eliminates false positives, and more reliably identifies incorrectly filled medications. Pharmacies can have confidence that their production meets the highest standards for accuracy.

Combined with automated substitution handling and production planning, this feature mitigates the risks posed by staffing challenges. Having software that is designed to, first, reduce human error as much as possible and, second, ensure that the system identifies filling errors, is a major focus of today’s more sophisticated pharmacy automation workflows.

New Business Opportunities Supply a Quick Return On Investment

Although implementing new automation systems requires a capital investment, the timeline for a return on this investment can be fairly rapid—as little as 1 to 2 years for higher volume pharmacies.

More importantly, the decision comes down to whether investing in automation allows a pharmacy to pursue new revenue opportunities that they otherwise could not handle. For example, if a pharmacy reaches out to partner with a long-term care facility and the only way to win that business is by using adherence pouch packaging, pharmacy automation is the ticket to the win.

Depending on the size of the contract or the ability to gain more than one contract with a facility that requires adherence packaging, the return on investment will materialize that much faster with automation. It allows pharmacies to capture business that would otherwise be turned away due to staffing limitations.

Choosing the Right Pharmacy Automation Partner

When evaluating different pharmacy automation solutions, find a vendor partner focused on pharmacy operations and workflow assessment, not just systems and hardware.

The value is having experts in pharmacy operations and workflow rather than those limited to equipment sales. The ideal vendor takes a consultative approach, striving to understand and meet your specific business needs first. Then that understanding can lead to a recommendation of the most suitable automation system that will scale with your growth plans and provide integration capabilities to enhance your existing processes and data flows.

About the Author

Jeff Swanson is senior vice president of Sales and Marketing for JFCRx, a pharmacy automation partner that offers a full suite of complementary pharmacy automation solutions: leading-edge equipment and software, business process improvement intelligence, comprehensive analytics, and superior customer service.

Additionally, pharmacists should avoid vendors that treat automation as a transactional relationship. Instead, pharmacies should align with partners invested in their long-term success through ongoing training, new software releases, quality control processes, and a hands-on approach to maximizing the value of the technology.

As staffing pressures continue straining pharmacy operations, the right automation solutions offer a path to driving growth and maintaining safety standards, all while better utilizing current personnel. By freeing technicians from tedious, mundane tasks and reducing the risk of errors, pharmacies can make the most of their skilled workforce. Ultimately, the ability to enhance patient care through improved accuracy and technician productivity makes adopting advanced automation solutions a pragmatic necessity in today's environment.


1. Hamstra M. Five retail pharmacy trends for 2024. Drug Store News. January 24, 2024. Accessed May 24, 2024.

2. Reed T. Pharmacies are struggling to refill their own ranks. Axios. February 6, 2024. Accessed May 24, 2024.

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