By: Brenda Neugent
There was a time when most people knew their corner pharmacist – like Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life – and visits to the drug store included personal conversations to catch up on neighborhood and news, besides the dispensing of medications.
That comfortable, personal relationship and knowledge of a patient’s health history has disappeared in recent decades, thanks to a growing workload for pharmacists while discount stores and groceries have added in-house pharmacies to snag busy customers with the convenience of one-stop shopping experiences.
Ironically, the use of high-tech robotics to fill prescriptions may help bring those warm and personal Mr. Gower days back.
For pharmacists who are swamped by the endless paperwork of increasingly complicated insurance forms, robotics offer a way to free up a pharmacist’s valuable time, allowing more space to tackle the regulatory logjam — and to spend more time chatting with customers.
Pharmacists see the prescription-filling assistance of robotics as a move that could ultimately help reduce compliance problems, which tops the list as one of the biggest obstacles facing the pharmaceutical industry.
According to John Norton, director of public relations with the National Community Pharmacists Association, noncompliance – essentially the improper use of prescription medication – is a problem that amounts to $290 billion in wasted funds each year.
This statistic – which essentially means many patients aren’t seeing their health problems improve – are at the heart of pharmacist TJ Parker’s decision to found PillPack – a mail-order pharmacy that is hoping to revamp how patients receive and take medication through the use of robotics.
It’s difficult for many people, especially those who are sick or elderly, to keep track of the myriad pills they take each day, which creates a severe impediment to a patient’s ability to recover, said Parker.
“I saw first-hand what a hassle and struggle it is to manage medications,” Parker said, whose home deliveries for his father’s pharmacy sparked his interest in changing the face of pharmaceutical delivery.
At PillPack, Parker uses robotics to fill prescriptions in two-week supplies of single-dose, pre-sorted packets, each organized by day and time so patients know exactly when to take them. For $20 a month – along with co-pays that should in most cases stay the same – patients are sent all of their prescription medications, over-the-counter drugs and vitamins they need every two weeks, along with medication labels that feature large, easy-to-read fonts and crystal clear instructions, replacing the small type on prescription bottles that can be the bane of anyone taking prescription drugs.
The mail-order delivery of drugs has become big business, especially for customers seeking an added layer of privacy while cutting costs. “What’s never been done before is taking that product and making it easier to use,” Parker said.
Because PillPack handles everything, it takes a big step toward addressing certain forms of drug noncompliance, especially for patients not filling their prescriptions or failing to take those prescriptions properly.
Parker is hoping that PillPack will reduce the problems people have keeping track of when to take medications, as well as the need to rely on a family member to fill weekly pill organizers — a painstaking and often challenging process. “It was our vision to take something complicated and make it very simple,” Parker said.
Robotics can also allow pharmacists in brick-and-mortar pharmacies to spend more time with patients and walk them through their drug regimens, which also boosts compliance.
One-on-one attention is still critical, John Norton adds, especially given the key role communication can have in erasing the billions of dollars of waste each year – a figure that becomes even more of a concern given the skyrocketing costs of health care.
“It’s one of the clearest indicators that pharmacy isn’t being practiced the way we’d like it to be practiced,” Norton said.
For busier pharmacies, the extra time that is generated through the use of high-tech tools is an important part of the process, and can help improve current business models while creating a more positive experience for patients. “The more robust your business, the more benefits you’ll get from robotics,” Norton said.
Robotics also offers a system of checks and balances that makes drug mistakes less likely, adding to the benefits of not having to pursue the exacting process of counting out pills to fill prescriptions.
There are a variety of different robotic models on the market, each designed to reduce the time spent on manual tasks while producing a higher level of accuracy. Many units – such as McKesson’s ROBOT-Rx, a division it recently sold to Aesynt – offers an inventory management system that also cuts costs by reducing the need for excess inventory and waste.
At PillPack, pharmacists are available 24 hours a day to field questions. While the system is simple for patients, behind the scenes it is quite complex. Packets are filled and reviewed for quality control by a series of robots. After the packets come off the line, pharmacists double-check the robots’ work, adding another layer of patient safety, before shipping them to patients’ doors.
Despite these benefits, some pharmacists have concerns about robotics. For instance, longtime pharmacist Frank Iannarone III, an independent pharmacy owner in Madison, New Jersey, asserts that robotics could result in layoffs in pharmacy drug stores.
While Iannarone says he might consider using robotics if his business increases, for now he believes that having enough staff on hand to provide the one-on-one interaction that can’t come with robotics is the best way to meet patient needs. “I like having the manpower,” he said. “It’s an expense, but I feel it’s worth it.”
To boost compliance for patients, Iannarone’s pharmacy offers a variety of different packaging ideas, as well as a 28-day pill cycle that – like PillPack – establishes an organized system in which all prescriptions are filled on the same day.
Even with more freed-up time through the use of robotics, ultimately pharmacists are not able make home visits to ensure patients are taking their prescriptions like in the old days. However, robotics is an attempt to create a process where health care is easier to manage effectively.
“I think we have an opportunity to use technology in an intelligent way to help people get healthier,” Parker said.