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Improving Pharmacy Workflows, Efficiencies Through Automation

December 09, 2020

By Julie Gould

Kyle Smith, second year postdoctoral fellow with MCPHS University, in partnership with apothecary pharmacy located in Brockton, MassachusettsIn an exclusive interview during ASHP Midyear 2020, Kyle Smith, second‑year postdoctoral fellow with MCPHS University, in partnership with apothecary pharmacy located in Brockton, Massachusetts, explains how the use of automation in the pharmacy saves significant labor costs and why implementing lean methodology could really save the health care industry a significant amount of money moving forward as drug prices continuing to increase.

Can you talk a little about your study and the findings? How can pharmacists take these findings and put them into practice?   

What prompted me to do this poster was global health care expenditure is on the rise. How do we mitigate some of those issues within functioning of the pharmacy?

With a pharmacy, all you really have is your labor and drug costs. If you can't do anything with drug costs, labor's the next thing. Utilizing lean strategies is something a class that I picked up and something that I found my true calling here at my fellowship.

I was able to look at our MedPAC department and see a lot of variances, a lot of issues going on. I ran a report essentially looking at, what's our current practice? What are some issues with our current practice, and how can we fix it? I pretty much went through all of our processes, summed up my findings, and then I was able to implement some Lean Six Sigma methodology to our process.

The main takeaway behind that is just eliminating variance, eliminating waste in the pharmacy. If you have too many people doing one thing, if you can push automation instead of individuals and repurpose those individuals elsewhere within the pharmacy, that's some of the stuff that I looked at.

My results essentially showed that by pushing automation, you're able to save significant labor costs, which like I said, from the get‑go, you have two triggers you can pull— either your inventory cost or your labor cost. By pulling that labor cost, we are able to save a significant amount of money every year.

To the answer that last question in terms of the pharmacy world, I think getting leaner with how we do things, our operations, making standardized operating procedures, and everyone just learning and implementing lean methodology could really save the health care industry a significant amount of money moving forward with drug prices continuing to increase.

Are you hoping to expand upon this? What are you hoping to look at or find out?

Like I said, we already ran our initial report, but that was just the start. We're looking at pre‑packing medications within our SynMed or our robotic machine. That's going to take away techs having to hand fill things. It streamlines our process a little more, and we can move our techs into other roles, like answering phones or things of that nature.

At our facility, we pre‑pack everything in unit‑dose blister cards. Before, we had the techs get a bottle, get a blister card, hand fill the 30 days individually. Now, we have a robot that's doing all those pre‑packing or, at least, our quick movers, our heavy hitter drugs. That's going to allow techs to be doing various other things within the pharmacy.

What are you excited to see based off of these findings? We talked about what this means for the pharmacy world, but what are you specifically excited and hope to look forward to in the future in terms of caring for patients and improving workflow?

What really excites me is operations. In pharmacy school, we learn clinical, clinical, clinical, which is also very important for health care, but making sure that we have a budget and money to make sure that we have the right personnel caring for these patients is always important.

Like I said, it all boils down to you have your inventory cost and you have your operations costs. Being more efficient allows pharmacists and technicians and all that to focus on the patient at the end of the day.

You have your machines doing the heavy lifting, and then your pharmacists out there doing the counseling, making sure they're not overwhelmed with a bunch of questions, phone calls, and issues because now you can move your techs over to answering phones. I think by focusing on operations and eliminating variants, you can essentially recreate how the pharmacy industry functions.

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