Expensive but with the potential for huge efficiencies, pharmacy automation could be the answer for an independent pharmacy trying to keep up with dispensing. Carolyn Scott reports…

 

A ‘digital future,’ with technology bringing efficiencies to medicines supply and dispensing, has been a target for the Department of Health for some time. “The future is clinical, underpinned with efficient use of technology,” the chief pharmaceutical officer Keith Ridge has predicted.

How should the UK independent pharmacy sector respond? Despite a period of financial drought, are there sufficient business benefits for more pharmacy owners to look seriously at automation? Is automation too expensive and too complex for pharmacy teams without an IT qualification to manage? Here are the key factors for pharmacy owners to consider.

 

Need for tech solutions

“Robots are really simple. You don’t have to be too IT-savvy,” reassures pharmacist Pete Thnoia, owner of the cutting edge Rose Street Pharmacy, based in a medical centre in Wokingham.

The pharmacy has had a large BD Rowa robot in place since opening in 2014 when several local GP surgeries merged.

“We are a 100-hour pharmacy that started from zero five years ago, and now doing up to 20,000 items. You know how people say that patients are loyal to their pharmacy – patients weren’t loyal at all. It was pretty shocking, actually, how quickly they left to join us. Loyalty is not what it used to be. The generation that are coming through now: they won’t think twice about ordering online and getting medicines delivered to their house.”

Automation can have significant benefits for the pharmacy team, he says. “I feel that safety levels are now so high, that as a pharmacist you can hand things over to somebody and not feel that you are putting too much pressure on them. With robots you don’t have such a churn of staff, because staff are enjoying their day more. Pharmacy is hard; automation makes things a lot calmer and less stressed.”

Mr Thnoia would recommend a robot to others, if they can afford the additional investment. Automation is now more affordable, he suggests, with costs of the units and maintenance costs having come down in recent years, but contractors should, of course, do sufficient due diligence before taking the leap.

“Once you get up to, say, 12,000 items then I’d say you should ideally have automation, because it frees you up to do other things. You build safety into your process, and you also get an uplift because people do want to come to you.”

While this may not be viable for everyone, he sees signs that contractors are considering automation to manage high dispensing workload with reduced government funding.

“I think that a number of people who’ve been in the game long enough are now looking at work-life balance for them and their team,” he suggests.

“Quite a few of the pharmacy owners I spoke to at the Pharmacy Show this year said they just want to change the way they work. A lot of them have still got 10 to 15 years left in pharmacy and perhaps they wouldn’t mind taking a couple of years of less income while they pay for the robot. We just can’t keep doing things in the same way.”

 

Workflow wins

Installing a robot is the perfect opportunity to solve long-running workflow problems and to optimise dispensing efficiency, says Keith Anderson of refit specialists Anderson Retail Consultants.

“Introducing automation into a dispensary can result in a much calmer, better organised and more profitable pharmacy, but the full benefits are only realised by fully integrating the robot into a functional and efficient dispensary design,” he says.

But the opportunity to save time in dispensing can be reduced if the planning is not done correctly. “Many pharmacists purchase a robot, install it at the rear of their existing dispensary and expect a miracle improvement in workflow and efficiency. However, picking from a robot chute is only marginally quicker than picking from traditional shelving if the distances walked are the same, and there will be no great improvement in workflow and efficiency if the whole dispensing process is not also reviewed.”

Even when a full refit is not involved, advice from an expert who understands pharmacy workflow is a benefit, he suggests: “Where a refit is not planned, this can often be achieved by moving around and adding to the existing dispensary furniture, but employing a professional pharmacy designer with proven experience in automation is definitely advisable.”

 

Working with pharmacy

Mark Roylance, senior key account manager for BD Dispensing Retail UKI, says that advances in automation technology are being progressed rapidly to offer even further integration with pharmacy processes.

Rowa’s StoreRx system, for example, allows bagged scripts to be stored inside the robot, with a barcode so it can be automatically retrieved by surname when the customer comes to collect it. This allows staff “to continue talking with the customer and gain back many hours of time (spent frantically searching) over each day.” Rowa’s Vpoint Pick Up terminal allows a customer to scan a QR code to request their completed prescription from the robot. Additionally, the 2D data and expiry date information coming with FMD will also allow dispensing by exact expiry date. “Expired stock will become a thing of the past,” he says.

 

Practical planning

Finding the space needed to bring a robot into a pharmacy may require some lateral thinking, advises Rohit Raval of Surrey-based Rapeed Design. Practically, space may be limited and as many pharmacies are in old premises, floor joists may not able to support the weight of a robot. The options here, he suggests, include:

 

  • Extending the premises which requires building works.
  • Use unused upper floor space and shoot the medicines down and this can require floor-strengthening works.
  • Reconfiguring the entire pharmacy.
  • Moving premises and relocate.
  • Installing a mezzanine floor to suspend the robot.

 

A robot is such a significant investment it makes more commercial sense to opt for a complete refit, he says. The equipment has a large footprint, which has to take into account access and dedicated power supplies.

If a pharmacy has not been fully refitted in 15 years then there is a “strong possibility” it needs to be reviewed, he suggests.

The look of the pharmacy – whether that’s modern and sleek or more traditional – should also be considered carefully with local customers in mind. “Pharmacy business owners need to tailor the aesthetic to suit the community they serve and are based within. An overspend can alienate an existing customer base and an underspend can result little or no impact.”

 

Securing finance

Independents can achieve financial savings from investing in automation, claims Tom Rocks of Tom Rocks Finance, an NPA-approved partner. The efficiencies that automation allows can be a money-saver in the short and long-term, allowing staff to be redeployed and enhance the services that make people in a local community choose their independent pharmacy, he says.

Banks and lenders generally like the pharmacy sector and may be especially interested in those looking to improve their business by investing in new technology, says Mr Rocks.

Using a broker that already understands independent pharmacy is an advantage, he suggests. “When looking at an application for finance, we brief the finance houses and lenders on the asset being purchased or leased, as bankers are often in the dark about this technology and how it benefits the business.”

Make sure that any arrangement includes finance for robot maintenance and service costs – “which are significant” – he advises.

“Invest and look forward, or let others overtake you,” he suggests. “Investment in your pharmacy: be that a refit, automation, or asking us to review your current loan arrangement, are simple ways to streamline your pharmacy business and to ensure it’s health for the challenges ahead despite the funding cuts.” 

 

Intelligent investment

Aileen Boyle, managing director of Braemar Finance, cautions that pharmacies seriously consider the affordability of any borrowing and make sure they are fully confident in their choice of suppliers.

“For some pharmacies, investing in a robotics solution will be a significant investment relative to the size of the business. It’s imperative therefore that the business owners have considered the affordability and can demonstrate this.

“As with investments in any new equipment, sourcing goods from reputable manufacturers or suppliers is vital. Once installed the equipment will be business critical. The quality of ongoing support, training and upgrades could impact the success of your business.”

Braemar Finance’s equipment finance terms typically range from one to seven years, she says. “We may also consider consolidating existing loans, which can often help ease cash flow pressures at a time when the pharmacy is undertaking a significant financial commitment.”

 

Is automation for you?

“Each pharmacy owner has to take into consideration the community needs, the services being offered and what they want to offer, the competition they face, compliance factors and their own wellbeing,” concludes Mr Raval of Rapeed.

“They need to know and understand if their pharmacy is fit for the future, and if it is truly fit for purpose for now.”

 

Picture: Hiraman (iStock)

 

 

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