For pharmacies across the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has been both a strain and stimulant, presenting unforeseen challenges and demanding innovation. And whether it was supply chain disruptions, heightened patient demands, the vaccine rollout or the expansion of virtual care — pharmacists responded.
They became experts on the complex treatments a patient’s overworked provider didn’t have time to explain. They became advocates for exploring generic or lower-cost options for uninsured or underinsured patients. They became vaccine administrators and lifesavers.
This unprecedented transformation also contains a unique silver lining. Opportunity now exists to maximize the potential and value of these highly licensed professionals. If, that is, pharmacies can optimize their own operational efficiency to make this a reality.
In the coming years, I see six trends shaping the future of pharmacy growth, including how pharmacy automation is getting smarter and growing crucial to allowing pharmacies to shape a more strategic future.
Trend 1: The COVID-19 pandemic continues to both strain and stimulate pharmacy growth
Initially, lockdowns and supply chain disruptions seemed to make for a bleak pharmacy outlook. Capacity and resources strained under the pressure of moving 30-day fills to 90. Patients stopped coming to stores and started switching to home delivery. That meant less browsing.
At the time (only a year and a half ago, though it seems like a different world), many pharmacies considered their strategies dependent on foot traffic and new growth areas such as specialty therapies.
While some of those opportunities were heavily impacted due to social distancing and drops in prescription volume, pharmacy revenues show signs of stabilizing.
As a result, many pharmacies are now embracing new directions, such as focusing more on new revenue streams based on patient needs like convenience from their own homes and vaccines on location.
As pharmacies find opportunities to rethink their growth, centralization and automation will be key to creating efficiencies and freeing up resources.
Trend 2: Pharmacists have joined providers on the front lines of care
Everyone in our industry has been called upon to respond to the global crisis of the past two years — none more so than our thousands of frontline workers, a distinction that includes pharmacists.
Not only were pharmacists adapting to get patients prescriptions remotely, quickly and in larger quantities, but they also stepped forward to assume part of the mantle of patient care.
Already critically understaffed providers were thrust into tackling a worldwide crisis — with many making the brutal jump straight from medical school to COVID-ridden emergency rooms, and others returning to ICUs where they were most needed. Through it all, routine, daily and chronic patient needs continued.
Often, the pharmacist was the person who could fill gaps like patient education and vaccine administration in the now-overwhelmed healthcare system.
The elevation of the pharmacist to a critical component of a patient’s care team has highlighted the need to create more time for them to spend with patients.
Trend 3: Pharmacists are coming out from behind the counter
Joining the front lines of patient care won’t just be remembered as a pandemic trend. Pharmacists’ role in patient care and their ability to impact patient outcomes will continue to expand. Trust in and dependency on pharmacists has increased.
When asked how the COVID-19 pandemic had affected their prescription behavior, 27 percent of patients surveyed said they relied more on their pharmacist for information about their condition and medication. Eighteen percent said they relied more on their pharmacist to explain benefit and payment options. Seventy percent of pharmacists, meanwhile, affirmed in a survey that they had taken on new job responsibilities.
This shift will only be possible long-term as pharmacies continue to automate and offload tasks that don’t require human interactions. Especially those tasks that can benefit from a robot’s touch, which doesn’t fall victim to human error.
Stronger technologies and software that pharmacies can rely on will be key to their ability to prioritize personal interactions comfortably and put the patient first.
Trend 4: Pharmacists’ time is more valuable than ever
The heightened pressure on pharmacies, the front-line work of pharmacists and their heightened role in patient care all spell one thing out: Pharmacists’ time is more valuable than ever. And not just valuable to the patient, but profitable to the pharmacy.
Care programs such as COVID-19 vaccines and flu shots bring patients into pharmacies, helping to build the patient-pharmacist relationship while contributing to the pharmacy’s revenue growth.
These programs and other potential revenue streams, such as pharmacist-led educational classes and specified care for diabetes — one of the leading chronic diseases and causes of death in the U.S. — will incentivize pharmacies to prioritize pharmacists’ time accordingly.
Trend 5: Patients expect more digital and technological conveniences from pharmacies
Patient awareness and demand are also driving change within pharmacies.
To remain competitive and relevant, pharmacies need to adapt and innovate to meet new patient expectations. Patients have adjusted to telehealth and learned they have more options, and will continue to expect remote, on-demand access to healthcare providers in some settings — a group that now includes pharmacists.
Fortunately, the technologies and solutions that will allow pharmacies to adapt to a more tech-driven landscape and patient population are becoming more attainable and smarter.
Pharmacy automation's more important than ever, and it’s not stopping anytime soon, with the strongest market demand we’ve seen showing no signs of slowing.Clay Courville, vice president and general manager of pharmacy automation at CoverMyMeds
Trend 6: Pharmacy automation is becoming more attainable — and smarter
Since its dawning in the 1960s, pharmacy automation has evolved — a lot. In the past year and a half, it’s evolved faster.
Given the trends we’ve discussed here, the heightened demand speaks for itself.
Over the next five years, the global pharmacy automation market is forecasted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 7 percent.
“Pharmacy automation's more important than ever,” said Clay Courville, vice president and general manager of pharmacy automation at CoverMyMeds. “And it’s not stopping anytime soon, with the strongest market demand we’ve ever seen showing no signs of slowing. To adapt, the industry needs to provide more flexible and more intelligent solutions for more types of pharmacies.”
Flexible solutions could mean giving pharmacies the option of taking advantage of an automated central fill/mail order system to fill their prescriptions on their behalf or investing in their own central fill operations or both, Courville added. These centralized capabilities are even available through a multiclient model, which may create further efficiencies for all parties.
In addition to the high-volume pharmacy chains that have long led the way in this space, smaller pharmacies now have opportunities. Lowering the lift for pharmacies has helped smaller companies gain the benefits of automation.
High-volume sites can result in a labor cost-to-fill of less than $1 per prescription, compared to the national average of $7.22. (This considers all drugs, including specialty, and is derived from labor cost.) Especially as prescription volumes, which took a major pandemic-related dip, begin to stabilize, centralization will prove to be a key strategy for volume fluctuations and remaining efficient.
Leading pharmacy automation into the future
Pharmacies are emerging from a second pandemic year embattled but wiser. It’s now a priority to optimize pharmacists’ time and value. As pharmacists’ role in healthcare expands and pharmacies evolve, so will the role of pharmacy automation.
Partnering with innovators in this space will be more crucial than ever for pharmacies, especially those looking to stay ahead of a pandemic-bruised economy and industry and emerge more efficient and effective.
To explore how patient-centric technology can help care teams, including pharmacies, and people needing specialty therapies take charge of their healthcare, read the 2021 Medication Access Report: Complex Care and Specialty edition.