Why pharmacists at your chain pharmacy still count pills and put them in bottles is a mystery to McKesson Prescription Automation.

A pharmacist himself, our Vice President knows firsthand how hectic things can get behind the counter when everyone is doing everything manually. He sees a future in which the only thing pharmacists do by hand is work directly with patients to improve their health.

In this edition of Pharmacist to Pharmacist, we asked him about the benefits of using technology to automate many of the manual functions at your chain pharmacy sites.

What are you responsible for in your role?

McKesson Prescription Automation: I work with a team of five people to educate chain, mail-order and specialty pharmacies on the benefits of automation and our solutions. We work with them to automate most of their key functions and help them use technology to assemble prescriptions. That’s everything from processing orders and filling prescriptions to labeling them, verifying them and dispensing them to pharmacies or directly to patients. We travel quite a bit, and we spend most of our time on site with our clients.

When you’re on site, what chain pharmacy challenges are you hearing about?

McKesson Prescription Automation: It is a challenging environment for chain pharmacies. They’re under a lot of pressure. There’s reimbursement pressure. Payers are not reimbursing them as much for the same prescriptions. There’s pricing pressure. They need to price their products competitively with other pharmacies. There’s clinical pressure. That’s the growing demand to spend more of their time on direct patient care. And there’s competitive pressure. That’s the disruption to traditional pharmacy delivery methods. All of these pressures are weighing on them to run their businesses effectively and stay ahead. So they’re looking for ways to relieve that pressure and continue to be successful.

How are operational issues adding to the challenges that chain pharmacies are facing?

McKesson Prescription Automation: Pharmacists were taught the traditional practice of pharmacy where the assembly of the prescription was highly valued. They were very involved to ensure that it was correct and patient communication was just a side bar to that process. Today that work still needs to be done, but doing all that manually isn’t efficient from an operational perspective. That adds to the pressure that chain pharmacies are feeling. But at the same time, those manual tasks are like a security blanket. Pharmacists hold on to them to deal with the pressure. But we’re at a point where you just have to give those up. It’s time.

How can chain pharmacies use technology to improve operations and relieve that pressure?

McKesson Prescription Automation: Chain pharmacies can use technology to automate virtually every task that doesn’t involve direct contact with a patient. You can use it to take prescription orders. You can use it to process claims. You can use it to measure, count, assemble and verify prescriptions. You can use it to more effectively manage your inventory. You can use it to dispense. You can move to a central fill automation model, which means you can fill all of your chain’s prescriptions at a central facility. Then that central facility uses technology to package your orders for delivery to your sites or to mail them directly to your patients. Automation can do all those things far better than I could ever do as a pharmacist. Much faster and more accurately.

Why are some pharmacists hesitant to embrace technology and automation?

McKesson Prescription Automation: I speak at pharmacy schools regularly during the year, and I often talk about technology. The first question that I get from the pharmacy students is, “Aren’t you trying to put me out of a job?” It’s like the reaction to artificial intelligence. The big fear of AI is job loss. What I say to the students is this: “If you’re basing your career on how well you can count pills, it’s probably not that great of a job to have anyway.” You should base your career on the value that you deliver to your patients and to the company you’re working for. Companies aren’t going to pay you $100,000 just because you can count by fives. What matters most is your knowledge, communication, and overall ability to make a positive impact on a patient’s health.

Speaking of value, what is the value of pharmacy automation to chain pharmacies?

McKesson Prescription Automation: Prescriptions are a commodity. Patients don’t look at them as these mystical pills like they did in the past. They compare prices and find ways of saving money by searching online. So you need to treat prescriptions as commodities. Automation can lower your cost per prescription by eliminating manual tasks. Automation can scale with you as your prescription volume grows without adding man hours. Automation can help your chain compete with online retailers that are getting into the pharmacy business. You can outperform their delivery service. Ultimately, what you’re doing is freeing up time for your pharmacists to do what patients need them to do. And that’s giving patients information and providing them with clinical services to improve their health. When you automate, your pharmacy can use your staff more creatively. Automation is an enabler.

How can chain pharmacies improve the quality and safety of the care they provide to patients?

McKesson Prescription Automation: Have you ever stepped into the back of a pharmacy and looked at the work going on like filling prescriptions and dealing with incoming activity? It’s pretty chaotic. It doesn’t bring me comfort as a patient to see what’s going on back there. Every step in the process—from taking the order to handing the drug to a patient—creates an opportunity to make a mistake. Automating those steps eliminates the potential for human error. That also improves workflow. By removing stress and clutter, your employees can focus on what they’re supposed to do and not be distracted. Those are direct effects on quality and safety. An indirect effect comes from the time savings and the opportunity to provide more clinical services to patients. I know pharmacies that are doing 40 percent more vaccines because they now have the labor to do it.

What advice can you give pharmacy students about pharmacists’ expanding role as providers?

McKesson Prescription Automation: I’d tell them to be the master of the information that’s available to you, become a great communicator and learn how to become a patient-centered resource. Simplify it and break it down for a patient in terms they can understand. Have empathy for your patients, and treat each patient like your whole world is about taking care of them. I know that’s hard to do in a busy pharmacy. But that’s the difference-maker for the patient. And that’s the difference-maker for your pharmacy in a world where patients can get their prescriptions filled just about anywhere. Five years from now, I see the pharmacist’s role almost solely as a provider. As the patient’s advocate. They won’t even see the steps in the fill-and-dispense process.

What other trends should chain pharmacies watch and stay on top of?

McKesson Prescription Automation As much as pharmacists are becoming patient advocates, patients are becoming their own advocates. Understanding the role of healthcare consumerism is critical for your chain pharmacy. Like I said, prescriptions are really commodities. Separating the product from technologies that enable better care is really essential. Patients look up their drugs online. They research drugs online. They comparison shop for drugs online for convenience and price. You need to make it as easy as possible for your patients to fill, refill and get their drugs. That could be a mobile app. That could be med sync. That could be home delivery. Consumerism is a disruptor that’s challenging your business model. And disruptors are coming from everywhere. You can’t be afraid of them. You have to adapt and change.

As a pharmacist, what bothers you about clutter and makes you an advocate of automation?

McKesson Prescription Automation: There is a reason why I’m doing what I’m doing, right? I try to be an organized person, and I value the benefits of streamlining. When you look at clutter, there’s information clutter, there’s physical clutter and there’s process clutter. When you reduce all that clutter, you reduce stress and you reduce the opportunity for mistakes. That’s important in any business. But it’s especially important when you’re in the business of taking care of people. Our patients depend on us to make their medication use as safe and as effective as possible. That’s our mission for our chain pharmacy clients.

Related: Learn more about McKesson’s pharmacy automation technology for chain pharmacies

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