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Pharmacy automation: ‘The need for efficiency is growing massively’

Running Your Business

Pharmacy automation: ‘The need for efficiency is growing massively’

Meditech, a Belgian pharmacy automation company with years of experience in continental Europe, entered the UK market last autumn. CEO Timon Dejonghe talks to P3pharmacy

How have the past few months been?

The uptake has been massive in the UK. The success rate has been beyond anything we thought possible, reflecting the growing demand for automation in the lead up to Pharmacy First.

The move in the pharmacy market towards remuneration through clinical services will only get bigger, which means you need to be able to free up skilled time. Pharmacies are desperate to do that; at the moment, they are checking deliveries and checking packs to make sure prescriptions are complete, things like that. A huge amount of their time is spent doing mundane logistical activities.

And in fact, one of the largest areas where automation can save time is putting stock away. When you think that the average pharmacy gets five to seven deliveries a day, sorting through it, checking expiry dates and rotating the stock all takes an awful lot of time if you’re doing it manually. With automation, you can offload all these steps – except for checking the order, because of the way most pharmacies in the UK order stock. But what used to take probably an hour or more each day now takes around two minutes, then you dump it on the hopper and the robot does the rest.

The other process is picking stock. In a small, busy pharmacy, staff will have to push past each other and walk around the dispensary trying to pick stock while other team members are doing their own tasks. That is just a dispensing accident waiting to happen, and it takes time too. The average time to pick a pack manually is 42 seconds, but our robots can do at least 15 packs in less than five seconds.

Not to mention the fact that the only way to feasibly store stock manually is in alphabetical order, which means your sound-alikes and all the different doses of a medicine are next to each other. All the responsibility for making sure there are no mistakes falls on the pharmacist.

Automation also gives you a fully digital workflow. With no need for data entry, prescriptions are picked robotically from boxes that have been scanned robotically. Our robots also offer different picking mechanisms for fast-moving lines like metformin and for less frequently dispensed lines.

Who are your typical customers?

It varies. We’ve got a few large, single site pharmacies that are doing 30-50k items out of just one premises. One of our customers has been able to eliminate an eight-man night shift through automation, freeing people up for services, and another customer in Manchester has been able to take a two-week holiday for the first time since he bought his pharmacy 13 years ago.

With the Lloyds exit, lots of independents are seeing their script numbers and looking to expand and automation can help there too.

Maybe it’s controversial to say it, but I believe there were too many pharmacies. The previous numbers were unsustainable and some of them weren’t there for the right reasons. A lot of that happened after the deregulation over a decade ago, when all of a sudden the geographic restrictions were relaxed and some high streets had four pharmacies next to each other – because they were all going for maximum footfall.

What you’ve got to remember is the number of dispensed items in the UK is going up by 3.5 per cent a year almost as regularly as clockwork, and now they are going through fewer providers, which means they’re all going to be busier. This makes volume and efficiency massively more important.

The flipside of this is that the whole reason there is this move towards clinical services is fundamentally because of a shortage of GPs in the market. If you look at the stats, the ratio of GPs to the population remained roughly the same from about 1955 until the mid-90s, at which point there simply weren’t enough GPs coming onto the market to replace retiring baby boomers and support the growing population.

That ultimately means that people are ending up in A&E with minor ailments, so moving this work to pharmacy through the Pharmacy First scheme is great – and it’s a secondary revenue stream for pharmacies, but it requires time and skill to deliver it. That’s why the draw for automating pharmacies is now massive.

The problem is that the money coming into pharmacy for providing that service has been eroded very methodically over the last seven to eight years. It went from seven day scripts to 28 day scripts, and you now have ICBs saying they want to move to 56 days. They’ve got to understand how a pharmacy gets paid.

France is the largest user of automation in Europe, mainly because they have so many independent pharmacies. Our customers in Europe also have the option of an OTC medicines kiosk to use as an out of hours sales point with a shopping screen, and in rural locations these could be worth over €4,000 a month. We hope to launch that in the UK this summer. 

Are innovations like this needed to help high street pharmacies stay relevant?

Absolutely. It can help them to modernise their offer and remain as the healthcare hub for the community. People want to talk to a pharmacist, but historically getting time with them has been a problem.

Everything we do is aimed at improving workflow in community pharmacies, both here and internationally. That’s reflected in our UK sales; we’ve done 25 system sales in under six months.

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