Walgreens turns to prescription filling robots to relieve pharmacists

Walgreens turns to prescription-filling robots to relieve pharmacists

Walgreens WBA -0.48% Boots Alliance Inc. turns to robots to ease drugstore workloads as the company struggles with a nationwide shortage of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.

The country’s second-largest chain of pharmacies is setting up a network of automated, centralized drug filling centers that could fill an entire city block. Rows of yellow robotic arms bend and twist as they sort and fill colorful pills and send them down conveyor belts. The company says the facility will reduce pharmacists’ workloads by at least 25% and save Walgreens more than $1 billion a year.

The ultimate goal: to give pharmacists more time to provide medical services such as vaccination, patient education and prescribing some medicines. These services are a relatively new and growing revenue stream for drugstores, who are increasingly able to bill insurers for some clinical services.

“This frees up the capacity of our most qualified professionals,” said Rina Shah, group vice president who oversees pharmacy strategy at Walgreens. “We looked at our system and said, ‘Why are we writing prescriptions like we did in 1995?'”

Covid-19 increased demands on pharmacies as they expanded to include testing and vaccinations, putting pressure on staff and creating a shortage of pharmacists that many chains were struggling to fill. Walgreens has reduced pharmacy hours at a third of its nearly 9,000 US stores and is offering signing bonuses of up to $75,000 in some markets to fill pharmacist positions.

Walgreens has opened eight automated drug filling centers serving 1,800 stores in the past two years and plans to operate nearly two dozen by 2025.

Walgreens has opened eight automated drug filling centers serving 1,800 stores in the past two years and plans to operate nearly two dozen by 2025.

One of the largest near Dallas fills 35,000 prescriptions daily and ships to about 500 stores in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.

One of the largest near Dallas fills 35,000 prescriptions daily and ships to about 500 stores in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Approximately 20% of the prescriptions issued by these locations are issued at the central locations.

The centers employ tens to hundreds of people who oversee the process or fill prescriptions for drugs that cannot be filled by robots, such as B. Inhalers for the treatment of asthma.

Time-sensitive prescriptions or prescriptions for controlled substances are still filled out by pharmacists in stores. Drugs filled in the automated centers are distributed by AmerisourceBergen Corp’s wholesale distribution unit. delivered to the stores along with shipments of medicines that are sorted and bottled in the stores.

More drugstores, including smaller chains and independent pharmacies, are looking to automate and centralize drug processing, said Alecia Lashier, chief automation officer at iA, a provider of pharmacy automation software and technology. Walgreens is the majority investor in Indianapolis-based iA and uses the company’s technology in its fulfillment centers.

“Small chains to larger chains are all facing labor shortages as well as increased demand for services,” said Ms. Lashier. She said the company operates about 1,000 chain fulfillment locations across the U.S. that span hundreds of units, including hospitals and pharmacies. The volume of prescriptions has roughly doubled from before the pandemic, she said. “They’re trying to get these grunts out of the stores.”

CVS Health Corp. CVS -1.66% , the largest US drug chain by number of locations, is using robotics to streamline in-store fulfillment, a spokesman said. He declined to say whether CVS has or plans to add centralized operations.

Robotic arms move prescription bottles on the assembly line.

At Walgreens, operations were in the works before a pharmacy staff shortage became acute during the pandemic. The company paid $450 million for its stake in iA. A spokeswoman declined to disclose the costs of the fulfillment centers.

Walgreens’ Ms Shah said that in some cases, automated filling gives pharmacists time to do essential tasks they couldn’t do before.

At locations with healthier staffing levels, she said, pharmacists can offer a range of medical services that generate revenue and improve patient health, namely by encouraging customers with chronic conditions to better adhere to their medical therapies. The company aims to be able to fill 40% to 50% of all prescriptions at central locations.

Pharmacist Adolf Makia, who works at a Walgreens in North Richland Hills, Texas, served by the Dallas fulfillment center, said the facility reduced his workload by about 40%. He’s spending the newly opened time calling patients beginning new medical therapies and helping connect patients with doctors who work at a VillageMD doctor’s office next to the pharmacy. Walgreens acquired a majority stake in the VillageMD primary care network last year as part of a broader effort to rebrand itself as a healthcare provider.

Walgreens turns to prescription filling robots to relieve pharmacists.7&height=900 1664755926 574 Walgreens turns to prescription filling robots to relieve pharmacists.7&height=900 Adolf Makia, a pharmacist in North Richland Hills, Texas, said the Northlake fulfillment center has reduced his workload and given him more time to call patients.

“We can do the things that we should do professionally,” said Dr. Makia. He said that sometimes when the patient calls him for the first time, he assumes he is a telemarketer because a call from a pharmacist is unexpected. “This process improves compliance; we let them pick up medicines on time; we can have one-on-ones,” he said.

Walgreens’ Ms Shah said the company has experimented with automated processing before because the underlying technology is not new. But before the pandemic, there was no urgency to push automation. Other than filling prescriptions and answering customer questions, pharmacists had few other demands on their time. The technology has also become faster and more efficient, she said.


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“We found that when we freed up pharmacists’ time and there were no reimbursable services, they had nothing to do in the business,” she said.

That has changed in recent years. The country’s retail pharmacies have played an important role in the delivery of Covid vaccines and tests. As part of the Covid emergency response, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reimbursed pharmacists and pharmacy technicians for the cost of providing vaccinations and some treatments. The pharmaceutical industry is lobbying to make this provision permanent and extend it to similar care for non-Covid conditions, such as: B. Monkeypox.

Automated cars put prescriptions in the appropriate bins before shipping.

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