The Trend of Pharmacy Automation
As the pharmacy seeks to modernize its processes and adhere to stringent regulatory requirements, automation has come front and center. While some pharmacies, particularly smaller operations, hesitate in adopting pharmacy automation systems due to budget constraints or space limitations, the cost of automation is coming down, as well as the technology footprint. Even the independent pharmacies should be able to invest in at least some automation. The investment promises to reduce their costs over time.
The accessibility of pharmacy automation products, including tablets, automated medication compounding systems, automated medication storage and dispensing cabinets, and automated packaging and labeling systems, has bolstered the market considerably. The pharmacy automation industry is expected to grow at a CAGR of 10.8 percent between 2018 and 2025, reaching over $20 billion by 2025. This is a much faster pace than anticipated in 2008 when Pharmacy Times predicted the market would grow at 9.4 percent.
There are several drivers for such rapid growth, including the need for hospitals to become more efficient to care for more patients using fewer resources, the decentralization of pharmacies, and the desire to reduce the number of medication errors.
Medication errors are of particular concern. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) reported that medication errors in hospitals harm approximately 1.5 million people each year in the United States. Most of those errors occur during the prescribing and administration stages, where error rates can be more than 12 per 1,000 admissions.
This is a frightening statistic that is forcing hospital and community pharmacies to take action. Pharmacy automation provides a measurable reduction in these errors, while also bringing added benefits to the organization.
3 Benefits of Pharmacy Automation
The pharmacy has plenty to gain from implementing automated technologies into its workflows. Even though the initial investment into these systems may cause pharmacies to hesitate, the immediate and long-term benefits far outweigh any downsides. Pharmacies must understand their investment goes beyond dollars. Any time there is a change in procedures, in workflows, or in processes, there will be a learning curve that requires time, training, and patience. Still, as government regulations and patient demands continue to pressure pharmacies, these investments are becoming requirements.
While not an exhaustive list of expected advantages of pharmacy automation, Forbes does provide what it considers the top three benefits pharmacies can experience:
1. Increased Speed
The U.S. Census Bureau released a somewhat eye-opening report that stated the year 2030 will mark the time when all current baby boomers will be older than age 65. This means one in every five U.S. residents will be retirement age, outnumbering children for the first time in U.S. history. These numbers are causing concern for medical providers, including pharmacies.
Georgetown University looked at the proportion of adults using prescription drugs and the average number of prescriptions per age group. It found that 87 percent of people 65 to 79 years old are using prescription drugs, with an average of 20 different prescriptions per person. Compare that to a younger population of those under 50 years old, with as few as 53 percent using prescribed drugs, with an average of three to six prescriptions per person.
With so many prescriptions to fill and that number only expected to increase as this massive baby boomer population grows, pharmacies will struggle to keep up. Manual efforts simply won’t scale fast enough. Automation, however, greatly increases each pharmacy’s productivity. The investment in pharmacy automation will be less than what it would cost to continually hire new pharmacists to fill these prescriptions, particularly when the cost of hiring and training each new hire is considered.
2. Increased Accuracy
No matter how hard someone tries or how many procedural safeguards are in place, mistakes can happen. Even with technology, things can go awry. As the technology matures to include artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other advancements, the risk for mistakes can at least be greatly reduced.
Even the smallest human error can cause catastrophic consequences. In the case of medication administration, it can cause death. To increase accuracy and, therefore, patient safety, pharmacies are implementing many types of pharmacy automation solutions, such as tablet packaging, dispensing cabinets, count-and-fill devices, medication dispensing systems, inventory management systems, and medication interaction alerts.
Related: Medication Mistakes: Who’s at Fault?
Each of these technologies enables pharmacists and nurses to collaborate more effectively while ensuring the right patients receive the right medications and dosages at the right time. Technology tracks inventory in both the pharmacy and automated dispensing cabinets, as well as provides oversight on who is accessing which medications at what time. The visibility these automated systems provide makes it less likely a patient will inadvertently receive the wrong medication or dose. This increased accuracy also means less waste, which means lower costs for the hospital. Further, when nurses have secure access to the pharmacy inventory available on the floor, they don’t have to spend time waiting for medication to be delivered from the pharmacy. The pharmacy and nursing are more efficient with their time because the technology ensures greater accuracy and secure nearby medication availability from the start.
Finally, pharmacy automation increases charge-capture accuracy. With medications tagged with barcodes, doctors and nurses can quickly retrieve the patient’s medication, scan the barcode, and go. According to Health Facilities Management magazine, “Accounting departments no longer have to run down missed charges and increases in revenue coming back to the pharmacy are being realized. By integrating innovative computer technologies, such as bar code scanners and touchscreens, automated cabinets offer improved charge capture during medication removal while increasing speed of removal. This allows billing to be captured more accurately and in real time versus a paper billing model.”
Greater Security and Confidentiality
Pharmacy automation is also giving pharmacies greater control over their inventory and access to that inventory. For instance, when hospitals utilize automated technologies, they no longer rely on manual data entry and paper trails. Instead, there is a real-time, accurate log of every medication that is accessed per staff member, with the date and time included. This capability greatly reduces drug diversion, waste, and the risk for patients receiving the wrong medications or dosages.
Before any medication can be accessed, the nurse must log into the system and provide his or her credentials. If they are approved, then they can access the medications. Even then, automation enables the pharmacy to easily perform, document, and communicate a timely verification of orders prior to allowing the nurse to dispense that prescribed medication without an override. This not only gives the pharmacist greater control over those medications but also provides an opportunity for the pharmacist to reiterate specific dispensing instructions to the nurse.
Pharmacy automation can also be linked to greater patient confidentiality, such as with automated calling programs. In the past, a pharmacy technician would leave information on a patient’s voicemail. It was up to the technician as to how much information they would relay over voicemail. With an automated system, the pharmacy can establish greater consistency and control over what is said, protecting the hospital from HIPAA violations as they maintain patient privacy.
By increasing speed, accuracy and security, pharmacies can offer a significant contribution towards efforts to improve patient safety and satisfaction. Pharmacy automation solutions are not a luxury reserved for large organizations only. As patient admissions and medication requirements increase in the coming decades, pharmacies must transition away from manual, error-prone tools and processes. There is too much at stake and too much to gain.
There is not one single solution that encompasses all of the potential pharmacy automation capabilities. Hospitals will need to work with their pharmacy and nursing staff to determine what systems would be most beneficial and then invest in those individual solutions to create their own ecosystem of automation. As they build their platform, they are investing in the future health of their organization as much as that of their patients.