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Machine learnings

In the last in our series on automation, we look at the obvious wins and unexpected surprises that come from adding robots to the pharmacy team 

“It’s space saving, time saving, from a staffing point of view it’s never off sick, and there are no pensions to pay,” says Rachel Potter, pharmacist owner and manager of Windmill Pharmacy in Denton, Manchester. “Plus when it comes to stock control, it knows exactly what’s in there. Two weeks ago we had a stock take and it took three hours to do the shop, but there was very little to do in the dispensary.”

Ms Potter chose a BD Rowa Smart automatic storage solution with one-point dispensing, and it has made a huge difference to her working day. “The robot means I can go and talk to customers, and I’ve redeployed staff to help with new services we’ve added, such as ear irrigation,” she says.

For Kepple Lane Pharmacy in Garstang, Lancashire, the biggest wins from installing a Rowa Vmax in the dispensary have been “safety and sanity”, says manager Jacinta Edgar. “Everything we do is about trying to reduce risk, and the robot has brought that to another level for us, especially during the pandemic when we’ve been dispensing up to 4,000 items a day,” she says. “The robot makes the dispensary very calm all the time, whereas previously it was manic. We now have to have music on in the background so customers can’t hear what we are talking about.”

And it’s not just independents who are seeing the benefits of automation. Janice Perkins, pharmacy superintendent at Well and chair of the Community Pharmacy Patient Safety Group, says the multiple’s automation investment has given it the opportunity to “refocus our pharmacy teams on working differently and free up our pharmacists to spend more time with patients”.

The robot means I can go and talk to customers, and I’ve redeployed staff to help with new services

Surprise results

Even for those with experience of using automation in their businesses, there can still be surprise results with each new install. 

With a bespoke BD Rowa Vmax at head office already running central distribution for eight pharmacies in Glasgow, Stephen Dickson, owner and superintendent of the Dickson Chemist group, installed a second 11 metre Vmax in his Bridgeton branch and has a third machine going into the pharmacy in Partick. “I think one of the surprises was for repeat prescriptions (we don’t have EPS in Scotland),” he says. “Historically, we’d have made up repeats in advance of receiving the prescriptions based on what was asked for, which we thought more efficient as all the work was done beforehand. What we discovered, surprisingly, was that with the robot, labelling and dispensing at the same time was more efficient than pairing up prescriptions with towers of made-up medicines.” 

Nicky Grundy, head of Phoenix-owned Numark Consulting, says automation has been the lever for change, both commercially and professionally. Phoenix uses BD Rowa’s Dose pouching technology at its NuPAC hub and spoke pouching facility to produce patient-specific medication regimes as an alternative to the MDS that would have traditionally been assembled in its pharmacies. 

Ms Grundy notes the ease with which patients have transitioned to the new PilPouch system. “This is primarily due to the convenience that it provides,” she says, “and the supported approach at patient level, thanks to the time freed up for contractors from the traditional dispensing task.” 

Tipping point

Janice Perkins says the point at which automating the process becomes beneficial is when the work involved in delivering the system (which is considerable and complex) is outweighed by the benefits it will deliver. These include giving pharmacy teams more time to provide additional services and patient-centred care.

Jacinta Edgar agrees, saying: “The world of pharmacy now is about services, not prescriptions, so if you feel you’ve put everything in place but everything is still frantic, you need a robot to take the pressure off.”

Aside from being cost-efficient members of staff, robots also never have to take time off. “At the moment, with rolling staff shortages due to continuing waves of the pandemic,” says Stephen Dickson, “in the robot branches, we are still able to get everything done.”

It’s a very worthwhile investment, which can be written down against your tax

A wise investment?

When it comes to how quickly their robot investments have paid off, Mr Dickson says there are many different measurements to consider: “In one of our branches, we used it for warehousing, so the payback was in underutilised stock. The second robot was part of a refit that enabled us to work differently with staff and still provide a service under the current challenging conditions where patient numbers are up. With our third, we had the choice of employing another person or putting in a robot, and there comes a point where you know you don’t get any more efficiency out of having another person in a building, but you can quantify how long it takes to put an order away or do a stock check.”

Despite the obvious plus points, Nicky Grundy’s advice for anyone thinking about automating is to consider the options wisely. “Local automation solutions are not necessarily the answer as return on investment and significant upfront capital expenditure can be a challenge,” she says. “Plus the costs associated with installation and ongoing maintenance contracts must be factored in.”

Taking the plunge

Peter Thnoia was the superintendent manager in a GP pharmacy in Wokingham and one of BD Rowa’s early installs in the UK. He was so impressed with the automation that he ended up switching sides and working for Rowa as its southern and central territory manager. Of his initial decision to automate, he says the driver was the “mentally exhausting manual processes” that left him feeling as if he was “constantly fighting fires”.

The result of installing a robot was that everything became “much more efficient and much safer”; it also changed his feelings about what he could achieve. “It freed up mental space to take on other projects,” he says.

Ms Perkins’ advice for anyone thinking of taking the plunge into automation is to start with a clear vision of what you want to achieve, then find partners who can collaborate with you to deliver this.

“It seems like a large investment,” says Mr Dickson. “But turn it into full time equivalents in your head and if you are saving one FTE over five years, it’s a very worthwhile investment, which can be written down against your tax over five years.” 

Help with finance

Pharmacy automation providers may offer packages to help with the purchase of a robot, and it’s also worth talking to banks about funding options. The government also has coronavirus support available to businesses. For example, the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme offers loans and other finance up to £5 million, and the Chancellor recently increased the payback period from six to 10 years. You can apply if your business has an annual turnover of up to £45 million. 

Find out if you are eligible and see what other support is available.




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