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Service and Healthcare
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Robotics in Chain Pharmacy
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Sep 19, 2004
More Service and Healthcare stories
Q. How can chain pharmacies benefit most from robotic dispensing?

A. Chains, as well as all of today’s community pharmacy models, need pharmacists to focus on patients--not on product handling and pill counting. To compete for customers, chain managers know they must protect and enhance the reputations of their pharmacists as knowledgeable, accessible and trusted health care professionals. Customers want to be able to talk to their pharmacist when they visit the store. Patient education and motivation are paramount. Robotic dispensing allows chain pharmacists to control and manage the dispensing process without being in the back counting pills.

Q. What about cost savings? This is an important factor, too.

A. There certainly are direct cost savings from robotics. It makes no sense to pay these highly skilled people to do menial tasks. Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians are costly and often in short supply. Most chains must use part-time help and overtime pay to cover the workload. This is a costly and unpredictable staffing approach leading to staffing shortages, overworked employees, job burnout and decreased levels of customer service. Robotic filling can reduce reliance on part-time help and overtime.

Q. Is the robot cheaper than people?

A. Yes, and the robot doesn’t charge overtime. It’s available when needed--24 hours a day. It costs approximately $ 12/hour versus an average rate of $ 40/hour for a pharmacist. Using part-time help and overtime pay to maintain customer service is a losing proposition. Put in a robot and you have capacity at all times for a flat monthly cost.

Q. Do pharmacists like working with robotic dispensing systems?

A. The answer is YES--as long as the robot is reliable and working. There’s nothing worse than having a broken down or unusable robot in the middle of your dispensing process. When this happens, the pharmacist in charge will say, “Forget the robot, give me more staff!”

Q. So vendors must provide good customer support for the robot?

A. That’s right, and that is easier said than done. Good intentions are not enough. You need a reliable design, remote diagnostic and support tools engineered into the system, and a strong customer support infrastructure. Vendors that are serious about this will provide documented response time and uptime statistics that can be verified.

Q. What else is important?

A. Overall, usability of the system is very important, especially after the “gee whiz” factor wears off. For example, the robot should be able to handle new drugs without difficult on-site procedures or the hassle of sending drug cells out for factory calibration. You should not have to depend on your vendor to enable the robot each time you need to change to a new drug. Also, some robot designs dispense drugs through common channels, hoppers or counting heads. These are susceptible to drug cross-contamination. They cannot safely handle many widely used drugs and cleaning becomes critical.

It’s also important to have enough capacity for drugs and vials so you don’t have to fill the robot while the pharmacy is busy. How it handles partial fills is critical as well. There are many issues relating to ease of use, and some of these are not obvious until you have some experience with the system.

Q. What do you see as the new role for pharmacists when they find more time in their day?

A. Studies have shown that customers want their pharmacist to recommend OTC products that will work for them. It’s important--and profitable--to have the pharmacist out in the aisle, or even at the front end sometimes, to advise on these products. One study showed that patients buy the product recommended by the pharmacist 84% of the time.

The robot frees up pharmacists so they can focus on these customer needs. We also have suggestion and reminder features in our workflow systems to help pharmacy staff promote OTC sales. Users have told us that these tools make a dramatic financial impact.

Q. So OTC sales might be a factor in going robotic?

A. Our ROI models include this: If you sell one OTC product with 10%-20% of your prescriptions, this will pay for the robot without even considering labor savings or other benefits. Plus, the customers feel that they are getting more from their pharmacy.

Q. What makes a customer want to return to a store, and how can technology help this?

A. A very successful operator told me that he follows two simple rules: 1) touch every customer every time, and 2) develop and promote specialized expertise. Someone from his pharmacy staff makes personal contact with each customer who walks through the door. If it’s the customer’s first visit, the staff explains the store’s philosophy and emphasizes its dedication to accessibility and customer service. Every staff member develops and maintains special knowledge and expertise in at least one area, such as osteoporosis or diabetes. They find out what the customer’s interest is, and the person with expertise in that area then becomes involved in helping that customer.

Q. Does this store use a ScriptPro robot?

A. Yes, along with our workflow system, SP Central. The staff operates at a very high level, fully aware that their customers have interests and concerns about health issues. When a store becomes a team that shows it cares about the customers and can provide expertise in response to their questions, a walk-in customer becomes a loyal customer, and a loyal customer becomes a promoter for the pharmacy.

Q. What’s next for ScriptPro?

A. The next frontier is a new level of system integration and unified support. We have been developing a comprehensive master plan to achieve this. Soon, our SP Central Pharmacy Management System will be offered as an upgrade to our workflow system to provide a fully integrated platform from prescription entry to robotic filling, with ScriptPro’s world-class customer support.

Q. When will this be available?

A. Our initial sites will install the pharmacy management system in November. General release is slated for early next year.

Q. Why is integration so important?

A. Community pharmacies have struggled for too long with incompatible systems from multiple vendors. You see several systems working side by side for adjudication, dispensing, point of sale, inventory ordering, etc., and they all talk in different languages. The output from one system is scanned or manually fed into another. The user’s frustration with this situation is severe. ScriptPro provides a unified solution, engineered and supported by one company. Most importantly, we are dedicated to doing what is right for our customers. Pharmacy systems are our business. We have no other agenda.

Copyright 2004 Gale Group, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

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