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Automation and services: 'Pharmacy of the 21st century' opens in Letchworth

C+D attended the opening of a new pharmacy in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, whose owner has considerably invested in new technologies to improve efficiency and free up pharmacists’ time

The new Letchworth Pharmacy is just a stone’s throw away from its previous location in Letchworth Garden City, having moved just down the road.

The “technology” and “the look of it”, however, have come on “in leaps and bounds”, said MP Sir Oliver Heald, who stopped by Letchworth Pharmacy to officially open it last week (February 25).

“Five, four, three, two, one, we’re open!”, Mr Heald declared to the applause of the pharmacy’s owner, Graham Phillips, and representatives of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee and the National Pharmacy Association.

Meanwhile, pharmacists continued their activities behind the counter and a patient waited to be seen.


Dispensing in the 21st century


Letchworth Pharmacy’s centrepiece is its dispensing robot.


In deciding which one would be the best fit for the new premises, Mr Phillips visited around 20 different pharmacies that relied on robots for their dispensing activities.

Each time, he noticed “just how calm” these pharmacies were. 

“You go into most pharmacies and it feels like a frenetic activity because they’re running around like headless chickens trying to cope,” Mr Phillips said.

There was none of that in pharmacies with automated dispensing: “Even really busy pharmacies have this sense of calmness,” he explained, “because the robot is doing all the running around”.

Things were not so calm in first few weeks after Letchworth Pharmacy first opened, Mr Phillips confessed, as the broadband had not yet been installed.

However, “it’s all come together in the last week”, Mr Phillips said. “Almost all the drugs are in the robot, the robot’s doing all the hard work rearranging […] and – as of now – we’re literally dispensing the prescriptions as they arrive”.

Mr Phillips believes that, to ensure pharmacists can fully attend to patients and practice “at the top of their license”, “you’ve got to free them up from dispensing” by “using [pharmacy] technicians and technology”.

“If it was up to me, I’d ban pharmacists from dispensaries,” he said. “Where the pharmacist is adding most value is [at] the front counter [or] in the consultation room”.

As for Mr Phillips, he “could stand and watch [the dispensing robot] all day”, he laughed. “This is my £100,000 toy.”



24-hour prescription collection


Letchworth Pharmacy has also installed two prescription collection points which operate 24 hours a day.


These are all about “convenience” for patients, Mr Phillips said.

After they request their prescriptions electronically, he explained, the pharmacy dispenses it and sends the patient a text once it’s ready. Patients can then collect it from the prescription points at any time of day.

The convenience of this process positively impacts the Letchworth Pharmacy team as well.

“My team are not spending their time on the phone,” Mr Phillips said, and responding to patients asking: “Where’s my prescription, is it ready, why isn’t it ready?”


A variety of consultations


The pharmacy also boasts of three consultation rooms, two of them “done to the standards of a GP”, Mr Phillips said.

Awaiting Care Quality Commission approval, GP Karen Benson will host consultations in one of the rooms about once a week, offering services a such as dermatology, medical acupuncture, and even minor surgery, she told C+D.


Now is the time to invest in pharmacy


Mr Phillips explained that selling other pharmacies, borrowing from the bank and COVID-19 loans have helped fund this “pharmacy of the future”.

He was “utterly depressed” about the viability of his pharmacy group in 2020, when he was forced to close one of his branches in Ramsgate that had been losing approximately £100,000 a month. The Manor Pharmacy Group now consists of three pharmacy branches in Kent and Hertfordshire.

However, speaking to C+D after the Letchworth Pharmacy opening, Mr Phillips seemed optimistic that with the changes in management at the top of the NHS, and pharmacy's proven record during the COVID-19 pandemic, the sector will start to get the recognition it deserves.

“You have to hope that with the right vision, and the right support, and the fact that there's new people at the top of the NHS that things will change,” he told C+D.


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