Q&A: One Expert's Take on Where Pharmacy Automation Is Heading Next
Pharmacies continue to face an array of challenges — an ongoing pandemic, supply chain disruptions, greater patient and customer demands. But they also have a huge opportunity. For one, automation’s in high demand and looking more accessible than ever.
Pharmacy automation’s growing. Quickly. Over the past five years, focus has shifted from mail order and large retail operations to heightened personalized service that improves the patient experience. All while keeping quality and cost efficiency intact.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented unforeseen challenges and demanded innovation within the pharmacy space. Long-brewing trends quickly became widespread realities. And though the pharmacist’s role in a patient’s continuity of care was evolving before the pandemic, pharmacists have been increasingly viewed as necessary patient consultants and an extension of overworked provider teams.
As pharmacies grapple with the upheaval and heightened need created by an ongoing pandemic and the role of the pharmacist continues to expand, pharmacy automation will only become more crucial. This is especially true for pharmacies looking to capitalize on their high-value employees and minimize overhead and inefficiencies behind the counter.
The current landscape presents pharmacies with an opportunity to seize the potential in this moment. Here, we interview Brian Doyle, VP/GM of Pharmacy Automation at CoverMyMeds, to see how pharmacy automation is evolving and what this means for pharmacies.
A version of this article was previously published in Drug Store News on April 1, 2022.
How would you describe the current state of pharmacy automation?
Brian: There’s a lot of interest in pharmacy automation right now. We started to see those signs prior to the pandemic when the focus was on user experience and access. But growth has since doubled — maybe even tripled — because it’s not just about the cost now but also about unlocking time at the retail stores.
Automation is no longer just a “nice to have” — it’s essential to have so pharmacies can meet patients’ needs — such as one-on-one time with pharmacists, vaccine administration and consultation and the flexibility to deliver medication straight to patients’ homes.
As pharmacies shift their goals for retail locations to focus on patient experience, patients will expect transparency, convenience, quality and cost-effectiveness. To meet those expectations, pharmacies really need better automation solutions and software.
To meet patient expectations, pharmacies need better automation solutions and software.Brian Doyle, VP/GM of Pharmacy Automation at CoverMyMeds
What role did the COVID-19 pandemic play in this growth?
Brian: More than anything, the pandemic’s accelerated pharmacy automation demand and innovation. Pharmacies that were on the fence made the decision more quickly, and those already invested invested even more heavily. Those who had a centralized pharmacy or two are now looking at having three, four or five sites. It’s a network strategy, and from a logistics and access point of view, it’s a patient strategy, too.
Customers are continuing to think through the user experience. New digital entrants are in the market and meeting consumers and patients where they are. These new entrants are looking at operational efficiencies and scale, so they’re starting to think through what automation can do — locally, regionally and nationally — to get to patients the same day, the next day or even multiple times a day.
Additionally, some patients are no longer comfortable or able to get into retail locations, so how do we still connect with them and have an improved user experience with automation? A central fill network unlocks that capability, whether it be central fill, mail or a site operated as central fill as a service.
Where do you see pharmacy automation heading?
Brian: The analogy I give to friends or neighbors is ordering a pizza. I can know when it’s in the oven, when the driver is en route and when it’s going to show up. We’ve become accustomed to that level of transparency, and that’s where pharmacy automation technology is going. There’s a great opportunity to modernize the experience of getting your medication and creating a transparent experience for the patient.
With pharmacy automation, there’s always opportunity to count smarter, faster and with better accuracy, and get a more usable product to the end customer. But a lot of the future growth will be around managing the input, the lead time and that user experience. Another thing is to be more intelligent on how prescriptions are routed through a network of pharmacies — whether that’s brick and mortar, a centralized site or a shared facility.
In the next five or 10 years, what needs to done to meet the coming demands of pharmacy automation?
Brian: The big picture is this: While maintaining quality, throughput and transparency, how do we continue to build solutions that continue to self-optimize, where the machine itself is doing the machine-learning?
How do we design systems to perform more intelligently? If I’m routing orders through a system and an area’s backing up, rather than a human needing to engage, how can we have the data we’re combing through suggest a part of the network with more capacity and then automatically balance the line for improved efficiencies?
Then, how are the controls and equipment developed for seamless communication, so count accuracy, speed and volume go up — all while using the current asset?
A lot of the future growth will be around managing input, lead time and user experience.Brian Doyle, VP/GM of Pharmacy Automation at CoverMyMeds
When you think about the future, will all pharmacies have automation?
Brian: There’s so much untapped market, especially among pharmacies that feel they can’t tap into a multiclient site or don’t have the volume to justify a single site. The market still has plenty of room to grow.
There’s a significant number of prescriptions that are fully capable of being in automation — and should be in automation — but aren’t currently. Certain prescriptions are always going to be fulfilled locally or immediately leaving the doctor outpatient or health system. But that’s a smaller percentage that may not be in scope. A significant number of prescriptions still go through other channels that can be automated.
And it’s not just for medication. Right now, it’s, “I want all of that medication through automation, but I also want these vitamins and other over-the-counters that are also going to be part of my overall health.” The full aisle used to be, “What’s the prescription that might be automated?” Now it’s, “What other over-the-counters, supplements or vitamins might become in scope that could also flow through the automation?”
Now, you can imagine that creates other things to solve for, such as formulary management, space and other challenges. That’s where the future’s going to be. How much is in scope and what needs to be fully included in one package with a nice delivery versus what might come in multiple packages within a finite window?
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.