During the last century, the mortality rate declined sharply in developed countries, and high-quality medical treatment can be rightfully seen as one of the major contributing factors. Every year, pharmaceutical providers develop new medications for a wide variety of conditions. In 2020 alone, CDER approved 53 novel drugs. But with so many new meds coming to pharmacies, the workload on employees is constantly increasing.
A great portion of a pharmacist’s job is routine, with tasks like drug dispensing, labeling, or packaging. Yet, they require continuous vigilance and precision. This combination is a recipe for potentially dangerous errors, delays, and employee demotivation. Like many others before it, the pharmaceutical industry faces the necessity to adopt automation and free workers from routine tasks, allowing time for more creative work. Thus, the demand for medication-handling robotic mechanisms and pharmacy management software is steadily growing.
What is pharmacy automation?
Pharmacy automation refers to the automation of any processes related to storing, dispensing, and delivering medication, or managing internal pharmaceutical business operations. It has been around since the 1960s and its market size has expanded continuously over the years, reaching revenue of approximately USD 4,385.62 million in 2020.
There have been many reasons for manufacturers, distributors, and healthcare facilities to take interest in automation over the years, but the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated its popularity significantly. The risks of staff shortage and cross-contamination, coupled with the rising demand for contactless delivery, made more pharmacies want to join the trend. The pandemic initially had a negative effect on the pharmacy automation market ($4.4 billion instead of the projected USD 4.8 billion in revenue as of 2020) due to supply chain disruptions and overall economic crisis. However, it is predicted to grow approximately 8% to 9% in the next 4 years according to the Pharmacy Automation Market Report by Grand View Research.
Types of pharmacy automation technologies
When the term “automation” comes up, most people usually think of machines taking on physical tasks: robots dispensing pills and sealing them into blister packs, drones dispatching a package to the patient’s door, etc. While such mechanisms are a big part of pharmacy automation, there’s much more to the trend than this. In fact, most pharmacy operations – from the point of order entry to drug delivery – are now being automated in some way.
Storage and dispensing
Storing and dispensing medications are essential operations in any pharmacy. Every drug is handled nearly ten times before reaching the patient, which leaves a lot of room for error and contamination. For instance, meds can be placed in a storage unit under inappropriate conditions, left past their expiration date, or dispensed in the wrong quantity. But using machines eliminates the possibility of such mistakes
Pharmacies typically get pharmaceuticals in bulk from manufacturers, then only store and distribute them. However, sometimes patients require unique treatment for their condition. In such cases, licensed pharmacies create compounds by altering the ingredients or the form of the medication or combining two or more existing drugs into one.
Pharmacies have to abide by many strict compounding regulations, as this process holds many dangers to the patients. For example, more than 750 people developed fungal infections due to the contamination of compounded drugs in 2012, and this is by all means not an isolated case. Therefore, most pharmacies today prefer to entrust this process to machines that operate with pure substances in a sterile environment. The recipe for a compound is still created by a professional, but the processing and packaging of ingredients are done automatically.
Packaging and labeling
Dispatching mechanisms usually also have packaging and labeling functionality, though some pharmacies prefer to have two different machines for these operations. It makes sense for drugs to be packaged right after they are retrieved from storage or compounded, bypassing contact with an unsterile environment.
Medication can be sealed into blister packs, boxes, sachets, vials, bottles, and other types of packages. The container is then labeled according to industrial standards. The label usually contains the patient's name, the name of the medicine, dosage, and usage instructions, and is printed by the labeling machine.
Every operation that is done repeatedly can be automated, which means it applies to patient data input, storage, updates and transfer as much as to handling the medications and managing the inventory. Every time a doctor issues an electronic prescription, data is transferred to the pharmacy and checked by the system against the inventory. A patient therefore can check which pharmacy has a particular drug available. Medical device integration with the pharmacy management software allows auto-input the information into the system when medication is sold to the patient. This way, records are maintained without the pharmacists’ intervention. Additionally, the system monitors the stock levels for each drug, notifies the personnel in case it runs low, or can even place an order automatically.
The role of smart technology in pharmacy automation
When the pharmaceutical industry had just started its journey toward automation and digitalization, most mechanisms were more like stamping machines than robots. Those days are long gone. Now, smart technologies have penetrated all aspects of our lives, and here is how they are applied in healthcare and pharmaceuticals.
- Developers employ artificial intelligence in many ways while creating pharmacy automation devices and software. AI performs a vital quality control function in dispatching and packing mechanisms: it double-checks if the right medication is being dispatched by photographing the drug, weighing it, and comparing it with the image and weight information in the database. At the same time, AI-powered chatbots, implemented in patient-facing solutions, help users choose the right over-the-counter medicine based on their symptoms, or place an order for a prescription online or via the phone. The technology can also help a pharmaceutical company foster business development by gathering, processing, and analyzing vital consumer data.
- Robotic process automation interconnects closely with AI in pharmacy and healthcare operations. While it cannot intelligently process data, learn, or make decisions, it powers all repetitive actions of the robotic devices like counting, weighing, mixing, packing, storing, etc. RPA ensures the accuracy of processes like automatically storing and retrieving medications based on their unique barcodes, placing orders, and tracking returns. It also enables pharmacies to collect, store, update and quickly extract patient data, as well as generate reports for caregivers, doctors, and regulatory authorities.
- Blockchain technology is crucial for enforcing the Drug Quality Security Act by ensuring drug traceability. Each drug is marked with a unique code when produced, and this code can be input into the blockchain. Afterward, each operation with this medication is added to the blockchain: when it is transferred from the wholesaler to the pharmacy, when it is sold to a patient or sent to a hospital, returned by the doctor or patient, or discarded due to expiration. A number of companies have already successfully incorporated blockchain into their processes. Devices used in such retail and hospital pharmacies read the code and automatically store the information in the blockchain or check it. This way, a counterfeit medication cannot circulate in the system, as there won’t be a proper code for it and the software will notify the pharmacist about a mismatch. Fake medicines not only pose a huge threat to the health and life of the patients but also cause 37,700 pharmacy professionals to lose their jobs annually in the EU. No wonder blockchain in healthcare and pharma has high adoption.
Pros and cons of pharmacy automation
The question most executives ask themselves sooner or later is how to expand and future-proof their company. Some view pharmacy automation as an asset that can bring immense value, while others argue that it is nothing more than a fad. In order to make an informed decision about the pharmacy automation adoption, companies should carefully weigh its pros and cons.
Pharmacy automation advantages
Increased precision and safety
As mentioned above, inadequate measurement or contamination of medicine poses huge risks for pharmacies and their customers alike, so human pharmacists have to stay alert for long periods of time, which is a taxing task. Machines, on the other hand, can ensure the precise weight, the aspect ratio of the compounds, and the sterility of the medication regardless of the number of operations.
Improved efficiency and resource allocation
The Journal of the American Pharmacist Association states in its research that pharmacists can save more than 46.5 minutes per 100 prescriptions filled by robotic dispensing devices compared to the traditional count and pour method. Pharmacy employees can allocate this time to providing better customer care or participating in drug research and development.
Automation reduces medicine waste due to expiration or contamination, prevents overstocking and damage of fragile medicine packaging, thereby making pharmaceutical operations more cost-effective.
Improved data protection and confidentiality
Pharmacy management software helps keep patients’ data securely stored and processed according to industry standards and regulations. Automated record-keeping and prescription fulfillment allow pharmacies to reduce the risk of drug misplacement or abuse while ensuring compliance with the Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA) and The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Pharmacy automation downsides
Interoperability and standardization issues
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so each pharmacy has to use different hardware and software for automating processes, which obstructs data transfer between companies or even departments. Therefore, it takes longer for businesses to adopt automation solutions as they require high levels of customization. Pharmacy employees, in their turn, have a hard time adapting to new positions or switching companies because they have to take multiple training sessions to operate new systems.
Significant initial investment
While pharmacy management software may be affordable both for small businesses and large enterprises, this may not be the case with compounding, dispensing, and storage devices. Those are quite large and expensive, so the adopting company has to make a significant upfront investment and then keep paying for the support. According to Global Pharmacy Automation Market research by Mordor Intelligence, around 80% of primary care facilities cite a lack of finances as a major barrier to implementing automation. Another big obstacle is the amount of training needed for personnel to learn the ropes of the automation software and equipment.
Challenging to set up and maintain
Some pharmacy automation systems may take up to 180 square feet and require constant maintenance and upgrading. Therefore, only large pharmacies and hospitals can afford to install the full-scale automation system. On the bright side, smaller facilities don’t require huge mechanisms, with more compact machines and software able to cover most of their needs.
The future of the industry: will robots replace pharmacists?
This question is one of the most frequently asked in recent years, as specialists across industries are worried that their jobs will soon become redundant. McKinsey estimates that about 24% of currently employed women and 28% of men could lose their jobs by 2023 to automation.
At the same time, it looks like these fears are insubstantial. According to Deloitte, automation replaced 850,000 workers between 2001 and 2017 but created 3.6 million opportunities, simultaneously. Statista forecasted that AI-powered systems will create 2.3 million jobs while cutting 1.8 million by the end of 2022.
The pharmaceutical industry is growing fast, with new jobs emerging before old ones are automated. Robots take care of routine and tiresome duties, while specialists can engage in complex tasks that require creativity, empathy, and attention to nuances. With automation in place, pharmacists can engage more with patients and provide information, consultations, diagnostics, and treatment of minor health issues, including those of mental health and drug abuse. They will also be able to invest more time into learning about novel medication and compounds, making treatment more effective and personalized for each patient.
In the end, automation provides a solid base for the industry to advance and develop further, but its future depends, as it always has, on people.