Karl Gorman
Pharmacy Automation

What Is Pharmacy Automation And Why Is It Necessary?

Since the coronavirus pandemic, the pharmaceutical industry began to see more reasons to reduce handling errors and boost service delivery. After years of development and research, pharmacy automation was the answer.

Pharmacy automation refers to the processes and technology that automate the repetitive tasks that prevent pharmacists from being useful in more creativity-intensive tasks. Pharmacy automation aids pharmacy management in improving accuracy, reducing labor costs, and improving service delivery and customer service.

In this article, we’ll define pharmacy automation, show you how technology can ease the burden on pharmacies, and provide pharmacy automation advantages and disadvantages. And if you think robots are about to take your job, read the rest of this article to find out if it’s true.

What Is Pharmacy Automation?

Pharmacy automation refers to the use of technology to automate the manual processes of storage, purchase, handling, and distribution of medication in a pharmacy. It includes a combination of machines, robotics, and pharmacy management software to carry out repetitive tasks in a sterile and precise manner.

What started in the late 1960s as the pill-counting machine has spiraled into amazing tech and inventions that changed how pharmacies store, compound, and dispense medication. Even then, there were fears of pharmacy automation machines taking over the jobs of humans and reducing opportunities. However, the reverse is the case.

Although the invention, improvement, and implementation of pharmacy management software and equipment has taken some jobs, it has also created much more. Pharmacy automation takes care of the mundane, repetitive, less creative tasks and frees pharmacists and personnel to perform more tasking work that requires empathy, discretion, and creativity. It allows them to focus on serving customers directly, creating more opportunities rather than spending valuable time counting pills.

How Pharmacy Automation Works

Right now, there are four major ways that pharmacy automation works in automating the mundane tasks in pharmaceuticals. They are data management, medication packaging, medication compounding, and dispensing and storage. Let’s look at each one.

Data Management

From inventory to tracking customer orders, data management is of utmost importance when it comes to handling customer medical records and drug inventory. Data that needs to be properly managed in pharmacies are order information, prescription details, customer or patient information, and inventory data.

When we depend on manual paper and pen methods, numerous mistakes can cost the patient their life and the pharmacy money. Some include misspelling prescription details, mixing up order information, or misquoting inventory data. With pharmacy automation, such occurrences can be avoided.

Pharmacists can confirm with the updated inventory if prescribed drugs are available. If it isn’t, the pharmacy can connect with nearby pharmacies to confirm which of them has the medication before sending the customer away with the prescription. This way, the customer can also avoid buying substandard products from unregulated pharmacies.

Medication packaging

Packaging and labeling are two other repetitive tasks that not many people would like to do daily for years. And because medication labeling is such a delicate subject, mistakes such as writing the wrong prescription can be harmful.

However, there would be less room for errors when it’s a machine doing the packaging and labeling. That also means there would be less contact and incidence of contamination during the packaging process.

The pharmacy automation machines make the process easier by packaging the medication in required containers such as nylons, bottles, vials, sachets, etc. And it can also label the package with the patient’s name, the name of the medicine, dosage instructions, and possibly an emergency number to call to confirm information or in case of an emergency.

Medication compounding

Sometimes, certain conditions require unique medications and dosages which are different from what the manufacturer originally intended. Licensed pharmacists assist by creating a cocktail medication in a process called compounding.

Compounding involves altering the chemical compound of a drug and combining it with another to form a new drug for the patient. Only a certified and licensed pharmacist should be performing this procedure.

And while the certification of the pharmacist is important, the sterility of the environment where the process occurs is also important so as not to contaminate the medication and cause issues for the patient. Pharmacies can guard against such errors by using pharmacy automation machines that perform the compounding process in a sterile environment by following the recipe and instructions set by the pharmacist while eliminating possible wastage.

Drug storage and dispense

The efficacy of the operational process in pharmacies begins at drug storage and dispensing. This is where drugs are stored in appropriate compartments and under conditions favorable to that drug. In some cases, a drug may even lose potency when stored above or below certain temperatures.

Additionally, every stage of the storage-to-dispense process leaves room for handling and possible contamination. But with pharmacy automation, the machine takes care of everything in a sterile environment using uncontaminated tools. Pharmacy automation lets the pharmacies prevent handling errors such as drugs being placed in the wrong storage unit, dispensing medication in the wrong quantity, or a drug is allowed to expire.

Generally, the storage and dispensing process would include the machine scanning a barcode of the bulk medication in their canisters and placing the medication in the appropriate storage unit. The pharmacy automation system then records each canister, the quantity, and their expiry dates. When a medication is needed, the machine retrieves it, counts it to ensure its the right dosage, updates the database, and then sends it to the next phase for packaging, labeling, and delivery.

Pharmacy Automation

Advantages and Disadvantages of Pharmacy Automation

Making the decision to implement pharmacy automation technology and practices into your pharmacy operations is a crucial one. How you incorporate it into your current operations determines whether or not it’ll work for your current level.

To make the best choice, pharmacy owners and administrators would need to consider the benefits and pitfalls of pharmacy automation in the pharmaceutical industry. Let’s look at the advantages first, then the disadvantages.

Benefits of pharmacy automation

Pharmacies that implement pharmacy automation may experience the following pharmacy automation advantages:

Better operational speed and accuracy

Pharmacy automation guarantees the process of storing and dispensing products is sped up and more accurate than if a human is performing the same process. For example, pharmacy management software and machinery can ensure you have access to the correct bottle or medication, track user errors, reduce medicine contamination, maintain medicine sterility, and weigh packed drugs before dispensing or storing them away.

Moreso, the repetitive work of storing, counting tablets, measuring bottles at a pharmacy can be boring and tiring. When a pharmacist in charge gets tired toward the end of the work day, it gets easier to make honest mistakes that may cost a life. With pharmacy automation, the machine can perform the exact same function and achieve the same results as prescribed without delay, except in extenuating circumstances where the machine needs servicing.

Real-time inventory tracking

It can be frustrating for customers when they ask for a particular medication, and the pharmacist has to physically walk to the shelves and scan with their eye to check if those medications are available in the required quantity. This singular action can be the reason why that customer can decide to switch pharmacies just so they can receive more efficient customer service.

With pharmacy automation systems, the pharmacy management software would already have an up-to-date inventory of all medications available at the pharmacy. All that needs to be done is to search for the name of the drug, and they can know if that medicine is available in the required quantity.

Furthermore, pharmacy automation for real-time inventory tracking helps pharmacies to avoid sold-out and empty shelf situations, expired medication, and staff theft. The pharmacy can use the information to stock up on products that are low in quantity and to remove expired drugs when required. And if you’ve got pharmacies in different locations, good pharmacy management software can track inventory and quantities across all locations.

Secure data confidentiality and protection

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA) are supporting laws put in place to ensure that patient data management is secure and that drug handling is done with the utmost professionalism and hygiene. Pharmacy automation practices such as automated prescription fulfillment and handling can help pharmacies meet up with HIPPA and DSCSA requirements easily.

In doing this, they’re putting the pharmacy in a position that tells the customers that their health is in good hands as regards drug and data handling. For pharmacy management, processes would become faster and more secure, and the manager can rest easier knowing that the machines cannot abuse drugs or use customer data for unscrupulous means.

Disadvantages of pharmacy automation

The following are some downsides of pharmacy automation experienced within the industry:

Tasking setup and maintenance requirements

Pharmacy management automation requires heavy setup and maintenance to ensure it’s functioning fully and to the best of its abilities. For smaller pharmacies, it might be a long chore to set up and maintain the efficacy of pharmacy automation machinery and software.

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On this ground, some pharmacies may feel better sticking with the good ol’ human interaction. They’d rather use human pharmacists they’re familiar with and can easily interact with than machines and software they can hardly understand.

Initial hardware investment is costly

Pharmacy automation software for inventory tracking and other administrative tasks is relatively affordable. Smaller and larger pharmacies and hospitals are able to afford these on whatever scale they choose. Where most pharmacies hit a snag is the initial investment in pharmacy automation hardware.

Pharmacy automation hardware includes storage, dispensing, and compounding devices, and many more. For smaller pharmacies, these devices are costlier to purchase and maintain in the short and long run and are a legitimate concern when deciding to purchase pharmacy automation equipment.

In addition to how much is spent upfront for the device and maintenance, the pharmacy must also dole out cash to train the personnel that’ll operate the machine. The training has to be continuous to ensure the officers are getting updated information.

Issues with standardization

When it comes to pharmacy automation and management software, pharmacies are spoilt for choice as there are multiple management software and machinery available to choose from. While that’s a good thing for business competition and for finding the right fit, it’s also a problem for standardization and interoperability.

Because each software and machine is different from the others, it’ll be hard to exchange software data between pharmacies and, sometimes, departments. Hence, they’ll need to customize heavily for it to fit every need causing insufficient interoperability.

Furthermore, the lack of standardization makes it harder for employees to transfer and fit into other jobs. They’ll need to learn about other software and machine all over again and attend new training just to function at the new job.

Key Takeaways

Overall, automation in pharmacy service delivery is a crucial topic in today’s age. The pandemic has shown the industry that so much more can be achieved when we don’t relegate human capabilities to mundane, repetitive tasks such as counting and storing pills.

Automation in pharmacy management helps pharmacies to save labor costs, reduce wastage, prevent contamination during compounding and leaves the pharmacists with more time to do the meaningful work that needs human intervention. However, pharmacy managers should also keep in mind that automation brings with it heavy initial investment costs, the need for careful installation and constant maintenance, and standardization and interoperability issues.

Before making the big decision to start the automation process, pharmacy managers must consider the pros and cons in order to not waste funds and get stuck in the middle. In everything, you must prioritize what’s more efficient for the pharmacy and what’s safer for the customers and patients.

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