If I were to say the words ‘automation in pharmacy’, I know the questions that would come to mind. “Why bother? Why invest? What is affordable and worth it? What are the pitfalls? What should I expect?”
Sometimes the idea of change brings about more questions than answers, and often the only reason we turn to automation is because we’re facing a business threat to our pharmacies.
It might be difficult to justify the effort and expense needed to automate when your bottom line has been drastically reduced and times are financially hard, but for me, it’s about survival.
My story starts with such a threat – from a new contract application just shortly after I purchased a pharmacy. As everyone knows, we are facing extremely difficult times in our sector, and I knew I needed to expand my horizons and look beyond my four walls to find solutions.
How I implemented robots
Over several years, I have implemented more automation in my pharmacies than I ever planned.
Our first robot manufactures Nomad blister pouch packs. The second robot, for which we received a grant from the Scottish government, does pack dispensing. The third robot – an automated, 24-hour prescription collection point – allows me to effectively have the pharmacy open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
This 24/7 robot dispenser adds convenience to the care we offer. Our patients often tell us they prefer it to our delivery service, as they do not want to have to be in all day waiting, or for their neighbours to receive their medicines parcel.
Our patients and customers also choose to stay with us because we offer a safe, efficient and convenient repeat prescription service, which automation has helped us achieve.
A pharmacy is not all about robots, but automated technology, along with online ordering of repeat prescriptions and robust software systems, is also helping to protect my business – and it can do the same for yours.
Mistakes to avoid
If you do consider automation, I want to offer some practical tips from what I learned – having at times fallen along the way – which have helped protect me from losses and cashflow issues.
Dispensing robots can swallow up errors, because they are hidden in chaotic storage. This can lead to losses, due to strict wholesaler rules on returns. To prevent this, you can ask at installation about the robot’s ‘do not load function’. This means that lines that you never want the robot to swallow can be set up and configured easily, if you ask the right questions of the software providers.
Robot stock controls help you keep on top of cashflow, and adding scanning barcodes helps to reduce near-miss dispensing errors. The risk of medicines falling into the wrong hands is reduced – as my robots link what is dispensed to the patient’s community health index (CHI) number (the Scottish equivalent of the NHS number in England and Wales).
Reaping the rewards
In my pharmacy, the machines have various roles in supporting the transition from just checking prescriptions all day, to feeling confident to leave that final check behind in a safe and controlled way. This is key – if you have confidence in the safety of your procedures and team, it will allow your pharmacist space and time to practise the excellence in pharmaceutical care that the public so desperately needs.
Automation and robots may not be the answer for all pharmacies. Perhaps some form of cheaper scanning may be the solution for smaller premises. In light of the new EU medicines scanning legislation, which came into effect in February, now might be the time for pharmacy owners to look into this.
But automation can work well. In my case, my latest business accounts finally show that our dispensing volume is up, procurement time down, and we have an increased online presence to compete with internet pharmacies. So all the hard work is paying off.
Bernadette Brown is owner of the Cadham Pharmacy Health Centre in Glenrothes, Fife