Rangewell

A Complete Guide to Pharmacy Automation

By Rose Brown
Content writer
Published: 22 December 2021 | Last update: 12 May 20221 minute read
Rangewell

Make more pharmacy business more efficient and grow your profits at the same time. Learn more about pharmacy automation and how to finance it with Rangewell.

The UK has an ageing population who are growing increasingly reliant on pharmacy services. The increased pressure on pharmacy services, coupled with a restrictive environment for opening new pharmacies, means that existing businesses need to find ways to increase efficiency to serve demand. 

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Pharmacy automation offers one such route, a proven system that has seen success throughout the US and Europe. With automatic dispensing robotics in your business, you can improve your overall dispensing capabilities and reduce the expenditure on manpower. The NHS Electronic Prescription Service operates in 93% of GP surgeries, with the future of digitally-integrated prescription systems set to be bright thanks to the potential combination of e-prescriptions, pharmacy automation and data analytics to help personalise patient medicine. 

Another key benefit that makes the NHS keen to push forward in automation is that by investing in pharmacy equipment, businesses can become more focused on assisting patients directly, which has a ‘knock-on’ benefit for the wider medical community as it can alleviate some of the burdens placed on GPs and hospitals. 

However, automating your pharmacy isn’t a straightforward process. It’s one that requires initial up-front financing to make it cost-efficient. At Rangewell, our brokers can help you secure favourable pharmacy finance solutions to expand your pharmacy and upgrade your systems - whether that’s through refinancing or other options.

Get in touch now to discuss options, or read on to find out how automation can help you.

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What is pharmacy automation? 

NHS Hospitals have been embracing automation as their pharmacies are typically under the most intensive demands. There are different brands and models available, but dispensing robots are designed to hold stocked items and then accurately pick medications to give to a pharmacist, who then dispenses them to a patient.

There are other automated robots too, such as a prescription collection point or manufacturing unit that can build blister packs for your patients. 

Key types of automation: 

  • Dispensing robots
  • Measuring/counting robots for pills, capsules and liquid medication
  • Inventory management systems
  • Patient calling systems
  • Patient record systems
  • Transcription machines

While dispensing robots were originally seen in NHS hospitals, things have now changed. During the 2020/21 COVID-19 pandemic, the pressure put on retail pharmacies saw many of them begin to invest in new ways of working which included automation. 

Automation essentially cuts down on the manual sorting and identification process, freeing up human time to focus on clinical expertise. One of the more popular pharmacy robots is the ARX system which originated in the US and Europe - a four-armed robotic system that can hold over 40,000 drugs, pick them based on orders entered via scripts and then dispense them with labels attached ready for the dispenser’s desk. The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital uses one named ‘FRED’ which has a 100% accuracy rate.  

Essentially, automation means you can get more done and help deliver to patients at a higher volume without the same burden on internal manpower you’d have to incur to hit those standards in the traditional way. 

The benefits of pharmacy automation 

Dispensing errors are a serious problem in the UK. Around 237 million medication errors occur at some stage of the dispensing process in England every year. 66 million of these errors were thought to be clinically significant. Of these errors, those that were ‘definitely avoidable’ were estimated to cost the NHS £98.5 million each year and were responsible for approximately 1708 lives. 

It is not just speed, but accuracy, that automation must provide. Luckily, automation does indeed help provide increased accuracy. Machines are not vulnerable to the common human error of mistaking similarly-sized, similarly-named medications. By reducing the risk of errors, automation frees up your time to focus on patient care. 

A study in the Pharmaceutical Journal reported that one NHS trust achieved a full 50% slash in dispensing errors within 4 months of installing a robot. A Scottish pharmacist doubled prescription volumes and reduced patient waiting times from 10 minutes to one minute by introducing automation. 

A review of automated drug dispensing services also found that medication safety and quality of care improved with implemented ADDSs, but found no major differences between each type of dispensing robot in terms of impact on safety. 

Compliance is another area in which automation can benefit your pharmacy. Automated units are able to check your pharmacy’s practices against regulations and send notifications if you’re entering any non-compliance issues. They can also help you sync records and keep track of a patient’s medical history and issued medications. 

Finally, pharmacy robots can pick and pack medication into blister packs etc without the need for human intervention, which in turn increases the overall sterility and safety of the environment. 

Why is automation not yet standard? 

With the increased efficiency gains presented by automated systems, why is it that all pharmacies don’t have systems in place? Much of this is due to the complex regulatory and legal requirements.

Cost

One of the key barriers is cost. Automation and robots range from £50,000 to £500,000 and above - which is a figure that solely accounts for the physical price of the unit.

The installation and integration of such a system will also have their own costs through disruption, missed working time and any potential issues that may occur. 

Reliability 

The study we mentioned earlier also found that automation did not reduce all error types, especially prescription errors. Sadly, the benefits of an automated robot can be easily overlooked because of their perceived expectations.

To put it simply: if you’re investing in an expensive machine and undergoing the disruption of its integration, you expect it to be completely error-free, which means any errors are scrutinised far more intensively than a human one. 

Legislation

There are strict regulatory and compliance requirements for any pharmacy, especially those with NHS contracts. These will differ depending on your area and business, but there will be limitations on which types of automation are permitted. 

How to get started

Introducing such a dramatic change in your working environment requires a comprehensive business case to be put forward. When you apply for any sort of funding assistance, you generally need a business plan to help give investors confidence - which is no different in the case of a pharmacy that wants to invest in automation. 

To build the plan, first, take any existing data you have about your pharmacy and see if there are clear areas you need to improve on. For example, if you are struggling with turnaround times for prescriptions, automation is a clear solution that will not only decrease that time but will improve overall profitability.

The business plan must make this clear so that investors can see tangibly that your investment in an automated dispensing system will increase your revenue and therefore safeguard their investment. 

As you build this plan, talk to your staff to discover what they struggle with and what they would like from an automated system. Assess their tasks and output and then use that to help inform your decision when choosing a model and discussing how it will integrate with your pharmacy with the seller. 

It’s important that you drive a culture shift within your pharmacy team, showing them that automation isn’t about threatening their own working lives or environment but instead about investing in the future of the pharmacy and the business. Innovation requires cooperation and you need your employees to help you identify issues with any new system and define ways of working that benefit the new cycle of work. 

If you decide on an automated dispensing unit, you’ll have to choose between a chaotic or channel-fed storage system. 

Chaotic vs channel-fed storage

Some dispensing robots have been known to ‘eat errors’ because they hide them in a chaotic storage system. This type of system is where the robot will load a pack onto shelves and only it knows where that pack is because it places packs based on storage requirements and efficiency.

Unfortunately, this also means the packs can be placed behind other medications and the robot can take longer to retrieve them. On rare occasions, the robot may accidentally lose the stock in the system. By the time the robot finds the missing stock, manufacturers likely won’t accept returns due to the stringent guidelines on wholesale returns. 

Channel-fed dispensing units see drugs stored on individual channels dedicated to a single drug type, which allows the robot to improve its picking speed - but the channels themselves have to be sized to your packs. If your pharmacy has lots of varied packs you’ll need to continually reallocate channels that are not time or space-efficient. 

Invest in your own pharmacy’s future

The costs associated with automation are falling thanks to a global improvement in technology output and understanding. Where dispensing robots were once so prohibitively expensive and experimental that only NHS hospitals could explore them, now private pharmacies are beginning to recognise the benefits of automation and investing in systems that help improve their profitability and patient satisfaction. 

In a world where pharmacies are under more pressure than ever before and, like private businesses, competition can quickly outpace your own lagging business, automation presents a clear opportunity for growth. Reduce your manual workload, spend more time on patient care and decrease the errors and costs associated with the more laborious aspects of pharmacy management. 

Remember: there are many different types of automation available - which means when you come to apply for funding it is often worth exploring every aspect of your business to create a funding pitch that accommodates for automation you may not have originally considered. Why only introduce a dispensing robot if you can also show in your business plan that a 24/7 pharmacy robot could increase patient satisfaction and profit? 

Choosing between suppliers

At Rangewell, our extensive experience in assisting pharmacies just like yours with upgrading to automated dispensing and other automation means we know the market inside-out. That means we can help guide your decision over everything from the ideal robotic system for your particular needs through to understanding the questions and considerations you need to ask suppliers to ensure it’s the right fit 

Get started with automation by securing finance through Rangewell today. Contact us now for a confidential chat. 
 

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