Pharmacy Automation Is Critical to Win the Fight Against COVID-19

Thomas E. Hanzel, PharmD

Technology is key in supporting and freeing up time for pharmacists to meet vaccination efforts and increased demands in providing community care.

Since March 2020, the way that Americans use and view the country’s health care system has changed radically.

The onset of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic resulted in vast shifts, which limited the capability to use hospitals for much of anything other than COVID-19-related admissions. The health care industry’s primary function became administering COVID-19 tests, and the ability to secure these appointments was extremely limited, based on lab capabilities, patient volume, and test quantities.

Fast forward just 12 months later, and the way patients and practitioners engage with the health care system has changed forever. Chain, community, and long-term-care pharmacies alike are overwhelmed with COVID-19 vaccine administration, and with the Moderna and Pfizer both requiring 2 separate appointments, pharmacies and their staff members are doing their part to keep up and help return the United States to normalcy.

However, the new normal may mean that the CDC will recommend COVID-19 vaccinations on a continuing basis, whether it be a 2-part injection or in the form of an annual booster shot. Although the responsibilities of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians has increased dramatically because of testing and immunization efforts, they still must perform all the other job functions they did pre-pandemic. These include assisting customers, checking prescriptions, consultation, filling orders, and prepping medications for delivery, leading to a critical need for streamlining workflows in their operations.

Full-Circle Evolution

Over time, the pharmacy industry has seen a major shift, from pharmacists who were the most accessible and respected health care professionals, to essentially becoming short-order cooks: keeping their heads down, counting the pills, filling the vials, and repeating. Decades ago, it was common to visit the local pharmacist for answers to most general health concerns instead of going to the family doctor.

In addition, hospitals were once often associated with an “end of the road” setting. The local drugstore was the most accessible place for medical advice. In fact, many referred to their community pharmacists as “doc.”

To meet the needs of patients and stay competitive, being convenient and fast became the name of the game, hence the growth of drive-through windows, $4 generics, and long extended hours. This forced pharmacists into almost an “assembly line” mentality. But now, pharmacists are starting to push back and provide valuable interactions to patients once again in the form of face-to-face consultations, home delivery, in-person medication reviews, and telehealth. The pandemic has reignited the connection between patients and pharmacists, as the former are avoiding the hospital and their provider’s offices but still looking for professional advice. With 90% of the population living within five miles of a local pharmacy, the pharmacist is once again the frontline health care provider.

With an increased emphasis on improved adherence and their expanded role in the fight against COVID-19, patients now rely on pharmacists more than ever. This means that pharmacists must find the necessary resources, time, and tools to meet these demands. In comes pharmacy automation to provide a remarkable boost.

Technology Support

Pharmacists have made monumental progress recently in coming out from behind the counter. In the wake of COVID-19, many pharmacies are turning to automation technologies to help pharmacists work at the top of their licenses, support operations, and take over redundant tasks. This means reallocating time for immunizations, with a goal of getting patients in and out of pharmacies most effectively. In a post-COVID-19 world, allowing automation to take the place of filling and supporting verification can get the pharmacy team to focus its attention on patients, which most agree is far more impactful than just filling prescriptions.

Automating the fill process, which frees up pharmacy staff members, will allow pharmacies to start programs that add value to patients. For example, a robust home delivery program can result in significant growth in their customer base. With the help of the right technology, staff members can focus on business differentiators, such as building relationships within the community and increasing services. In addition, technology that supports adherence packaging is an advantage that builds customer loyalty and increases quality of care.

Planning for the Future

Although the expectations put upon pharmacies have changed aggressively during this past year, the goals have stayed the same: being accessible frontline providers; helping keeping communities healthy; and putting patients first. Implementing the right automation now will thrust pharmacies into the future, give them a renewed focus, and continue to diversify the role of pharmacists.

Tom Hanzel, PharmD, is vice president of long-term care and nutraceuticals at Parata Systems in Durham, North Carolina.

Reference

Qato DM, Zenk S, Wilder J, Harrington R, Darrell G, Alexander GC. The availability of pharmacies in the United States: 2007-2015. PLoS One. 2017;12(8):e0183172. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0183172