The Time for QR Codes in Pharmacy is Now


QR codes were invented almost 30 years ago and are used on everything from cereal boxes to repair manuals, yet pharmacy has yet to even consider them.

Suppose you could decrease costs in your pharmacy while freeing up time for your technicians, make a move toward “going green,” improve your relationship with your customer, and assist the customer with finding useful information about their medication. And suppose there were no costs involved in doing so? It would be a no-brainer, wouldn’t it?

Scan QR code flat icon with phone. Barcode. Vector illustration. Credit: 4zevar -

Credit: 4zevar -

These benefits and more can all be provided by placing QR codes on prescription bottles. QR codes were invented almost 30 years ago and are used on everything from cereal boxes to repair manuals, yet pharmacy has yet to even consider them. Why?

I have spoken with the two largest database providers and am told that one is too busy right now, and the other is “looking into it.” Who among us does not have a QR reader app on our phones? Why do we use our phones to gain information from QR codes on everything in our lives except our medicines? Here is how they could help pharmacies and consumers alike.

Right now, anytime a patient receives a new prescription, they are given a patient advisory leaflet (PAL) along with it, which can be from 2 to 10 pages long. This is printed out in advance and placed in a bag with the prescription in the will call holding area.

You are not asked if you want this leaflet, it is simply given to you. The main reason for printing it in advance, and not when the patient picks up their prescription, is to avoid creating long wait times at the register during busy periods.

Some pharmacies provide the PAL with each refill, but many do not. Now suppose that we changed this process so that the customer was given the option of receiving the PAL.

The difference would be that a QR code would be printed on the vial label, and it would be explained that the patient could scan this at any time to see the required drug information. Many patients would opt for this, especially because the pharmacy would have a sign explaining how they are saving trees by not printing as much paper.

If they choose to, they could still receive the PAL, but I believe the majority of patients—and certainly most of the younger ones—would opt for this. It is my belief that within 90 days, a pharmacy using QR codes would be printing 50% less than they used to.

Not only would you save on paper, but think how much you spend per year on toner—the savings could be significant. For the customer, not only can they now put the prescription immediately into their pocket or purse (since they don’t have the paper to carry), but there are additional benefits. As we know, the vast majority of these PALs are thrown out without ever being read. Even when they are read, nobody reads the entire thing.

So now a customer who started taking the new drug 4 or 5 days ago is experiencing a new symptom and wonders whether it is related to the new drug. In the past, they would have thrown out the PAL, and would have to return to the pharmacy to get a new one printed.

But now, from the convenience of their home, they simply scan the QR code and look at the possible adverse effects, along with the other information. One of our biggest pharmacy chains has been running a television ad in which a patient has his prescriptions in a pill box, and when he opens it he spills them. Now he wonders which pill he is supposed to take and when.

In the ad, he calls the pharmacy to get the information. What if the pharmacy is closed? What about wait times? Instead, he could just scan his pill bottle(s) and immediately see an image of the pill, along with doing instructions.

Here is another benefit for the patient: For many years we have wanted to print actual color images of the medication for the patient. The pharmacy is supplied with these color images that they view on their computer screen allowing for verification. These same images could be printed on the bottle (best case), or the PAL, if needed.

But both of these are printed on black and white printers, and the image needs to be in color to be of real value. We can’t print them in color because we don’t use color printers for a good reason—primarily that the supplies are too expensive. There are additional reasons, but this is the primary one.

Well, everyone’s smart phone would show these images in full color, which is a fantastic resource for the customer. If they are filling a pill box and make a mistake, or spill the pills, they can easily bring up the pill image and fill the pill box correctly. Anytime they have a question about what a pill is, they can find out immediately.

Are you starting to see the benefits of QR codes for prescriptions? Some smaller benefits for the pharmacy are that not printing out the PALs in advance, folding them and placing them in the bag frees up a little time for the technician. With the current pharmacist shortage, any extra time that the techs can donate to the pharmacist is helpful.

Now think of the will call area. Pharmacies may be able to reduce the size of their will call area by 50%, and also redesign the area so as not to need PALs.

Now let’s go past the basic advantages and look into how we can add real value for the patient and the pharmacy. Suppose a patient is taking a medicine to help with bladder control.

Would they not be a perfect candidate for adult diapers or pads? Suppose that we took the information, which was formerly on the PAL, and is now on the QR code info, and added a coupon for $3 off of diapers or pads?

Talk about the holy grail of advertising—100% accurate targeted advertising. Think how much advertisers would pay for these ads. That’s a new revenue stream for the front end of the stores. And for those cases in which a targeted product may not be relevant, how about simple discount coupons for the store?

Instead of giving these out to customers as pieces of paper at checkout, most of which are lost or thrown out), now the customer has them forever on their phone. Again, cost savings for the store (lack of printing and paper costs), and convenience for the customer.

Now take the next step. Although everything we have been talking about thus far would apply to all customers, you now have the ability to truly personalize information for an individual patient.

Are they not returning for refills? Do you want to follow-up on symptoms and offer suggestions? Communication can now happen 100% digitally, instead of verbally, which is what people tend to want these days. With so many advantages, why haven’t we been using QR codes for the last 15 years?

About the Author

Wes Moffett is a consultant to retail pharmacy, and can be reached at, or 585-218-9880.

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