Anna Clark, Senior Director of Pharmacy, HealthTrust Europe
Pharmacy automation offers numerous benefits to both patients and health and care providers, however not all have been able to take advantage of it. With increasing pressure on pharmacies now may be the right time for providers who want to increase efficiency to take a fresh look at automation.
Since the 1960s there has been some degree of automation in place in pharmacies. Increased artificial intelligence and machine learning facilities, combined with the lower cost of automated systems, have put automation within reach for even smaller pharmacies.
In the UK, during 2017-18 the NHS consumed £17.4 billion worth of medicines, an increase of 3.5 per cent from 2016-17, which amounts to 1.1billion prescriptions, that’s 2,000 a minute through community prescribing alone. With such huge amounts of medicines and devices being processed, any method of improving the dispensation of these items should be welcomed.
Pharmacies, like other areas of healthcare, are under increasing pressure to provide services under tight financial constraints and are facing issues such as the aging population and increased demand. In addition, they encounter more specific challenges such as increased responsibilities, reduced time to spend with patients or customers, and limited storage space. Pharmacy automation can go some way to address these challenges; it can benefit patients by allowing staff to spend more time with them and can reduce waiting times. Automation can also create a significant reduction in dispensing errors and a reduction in owings (being unable to dispense prescriptions due to insufficient stock) due to improved stock management.
HealthTrust Europe operates as a bridge between healthcare providers and suppliers, sourcing the best value products and services to deliver high quality patient care. For example, we’ve worked with Inderjit Singh, chief pharmacist at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust which recently implemented an automated dispensing system off the back of our advice. He said it’s really improved their practice: “We now use a smaller dispensary footprint - an area of approximately 30m2 is sufficient for managing 18,000 items per month. It also allows us to stock a greater breadth of over-the-counter items by holding them within the automation and just one pack on display on the shop floor. In addition, we have experienced a reduction in stock obsolescence due to improved stock management, and we have used automation to help us navigate the Falsified Medicines Directive - the European Union rules which protect people from fake medicines.”
Ashita Tailor is director of pharmacy operations, Supply Chain, HCA Healthcare UK. Last year we helped all six hospitals in the group install automated pharmacy cabinets which reduce error by requiring specific dispensing information before allowing access to medication. Ashita has this advice to organisations thinking of following suit: “Make sure you have mapped all your processes (including IT) and a good training program outlining all of these processes in place. Get people on-board to champion your changes; if you engage with members of staff the transition will go much smoother. Finally, get your inventory in all locations up-to-date before implementing automation to ensure it runs as efficiently as possible.”
So, when can we expect to see more pharmacy automation? Back in 2016 the government conducted a closed consultation on Pharmacy dispensing models and displaying prices on medicines, but since then no further announcement has been made. However, this month (June) the chief executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens, said healthcare providers will be given financial incentives to use technology such as AI in areas such as diagnostics, screening and outpatient appointments. His comments echo those of Matt Hancock, the health secretary, who has also been pushing for a technological revolution, and have prompted rumors in the pharmacy sector press that automation is being reconsidered by NHS England. Given the increasing momentum around healthcare technology from politicians and industry professionals alike, a more widespread pharmacy automation system may well be on the horizon.