Smartphones are the new thing in efficient, on-the-go and interactive pharmacy patient services. But what technology piece is missing in too many chain pharmacies today?


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Analysis: What many chains still lack in Rx tech

May 31st, 2012

SAN ANTONIO – Smartphones are the new thing in efficient, on-the-go and interactive pharmacy patient services. But what technology piece is missing in too many chain pharmacies today?

The last 15 or even 20 years have provided amazing leaps from pharmacy technologies that enable more efficient prescription dispensing. For pharmacy chains able to finely integrate technologies with physical design and efficient work processes, the productivity gains in terms of reduced labor dollars per prescription dispensed and accuracy of dispensing have been great indeed.

As an example, in most pharmacy chains, patients enter refill requests via an IVR (interactive voice response) system. The system advises a pickup time and asks for patient acceptance, which is accepted nearly 100% of the time. If a refill authorization is required, it is electronically communicated to the prescriber. The prescriber electronically responds, and the authorized refill is put in a queue for filling.

So far as the pharmacy staff is concerned, nothing will have happened until either the refill queue is checked or a prescription label and attending documents are printed to be put into the filling process. Activities that used to consume labor have been replaced by effective automation. And potential human errors have been eliminated.

With this missing technology piece, pharmacy staffing can be better synched with customer demand.

Accretive gains to margin, defined as gross dollar margin per prescription minus labor cost per prescription dispensed, have enabled management to bolster balance sheets, increase earnings per share and increase the budget spend for marketing, advertising and promotion.

So what’s missing? Actually, it's something so simple, so amazingly functional and — one would think — so obvious. At least it has been obvious for at least one of the largest pharmacy chains for many years, but for other chains with proprietary systems and for pharmacy systems management providers for those chains without their own proprietary systems, it seems to remain a foggy mystery.

It’s about the meaninglessness of when a new prescription or refill request arrived at the pharmacy and the immense value of knowing when the patient has agreed to pick up the filled ­prescription.

Envision a computer screen with 24 queues, one for each hour of the day. At the pharmacy manager’s discretion, each hourly queue can be filled with a predetermined number of prescriptions to be filled in that hour — let’s say, 30 for the noon to 1 p.m. hour and 50 for the 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. hour. By integrating with the IVR and auto fax systems, these queues can be filed with incoming requests until they are full.

When a patient requests a pickup time for which the queue is filled, the system reverts to the next queue with a slot available. So when the clock hits noon, all queued requests to be completed by 1 p.m. are printed out for filling in the noon to 1 p.m. hour. All prescriptions promised to be filled by 1 p.m. are ready to go.

Several pieces of pure magic are achieved. Patients begin to learn that by using the system their prescription requests are always ready for them when they arrive for pickup. For the pharmacy, what is otherwise uneven customer demand becomes smoothed so that staffing becomes predictable and synched with customer demand. Staff stress is reduced greatly. So is staff cost, the largest expense component of filling prescriptions.

In addition, unplanned walk-up or emergency prescriptions can be filled on the spot with little wait without stressing staff availability.

This author is familiar with a 20-plus store district with very-high-volume pharmacies — the majority of them with more than 4,000 prescriptions per week — that promise walk-in wait times of 10 minutes. It’s the 24-hour incoming request queue system that makes it possible.

That’s what remains missing in too many chain pharmacies today.

ROBERT COOPMAN is president of Robert Coopman Consultants, which is based in San Antonio. He can be contacted at rcoopman67@gmail.com.

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