Without a doubt more pharmacies are considering adopting automation in their businesses so they can focus on what actually matters: providing quality health advice and counselling to their patients.

The following two pharmacies have a very different set-up from each other, but both have gone ahead with automating some of their processes and reported benefits along the way.

As community health professionals, some of you may be satisfied with efficiencies achieved without the need for automation and that's fine. But it doesn't hurt to give a little health check to your own pharmacies. If recalling the last time a pharmacy health check was conducted takes a while, it is highly recommended that you conduct another.

Automation doesn't just include dispensing robots (which require large investment and may only be viable in larger pharmacies), but can also mean relatively low-cost solutions, including platforms that automate supply chain decisions, patient communications and back office activities. Talking to fellow pharmacists who have implemented automated solutions is a great starting point - find out what worked for them and what didn't. A quick step forward may be to calculate the time spent doing repetitive tasks that are not patient focused and look at examples of pharmacies that have used automation to reduce this burden. Variables that are considered when you are assessing whether you pharmacy needs automation are business size, script quantities, stock lines, projected growth, floor plan analysis, and ultimately your return on investment.

Market research has highlighted that the solutions most attractive to patients are automatic notifications about the availability of a script for collection, followed by health monitoring and advice via smartphone apps.

Let's look at two of our member pharmacies that have a very different set-up from each other, but both have gone ahead with automating some of their processes and reported benefits along the way.

HealthSmart Pharmacy, Melbourne

The pharmacy is located within the retail precinct of the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Parkville. With a Very strong retail front, the pharmacy caters to the needs of patients in the hospital or other customers moving in and out of the hospital. In addition to the usual retail offering the pharmacy has a wide range of gift items available.

The pharmacy has been operating for 11 years and pharmacist owner Anthony Hrysoudis says he went from a two-tier bench model to a forward dispensing model and used the automated dispensing machines to aid the new model, "Now all our dispensary items (approx. 95%) except the fridge and DDS are in the automatic dispenser. We've had the robot for 18 months now and automation has made a big difference."

Anthony explained that the pharmacy is located inside the hospital, so it is a very service-oriented pharmacy and his team strive to provide the best service to their customers, "Automating the dispensing has given us back the time it takes to handle stock — not dispensing but putting away and organising it. Also, we use it for storing our S8 medicines, so only a pharmacist can access it. Now when a patient comes into the pharmacy we can focus on having uninterrupted health conversations and the pharmacist doesn't need to walk away to find the medication."

The robot takes up much of the space behind the dispensing counter and has four terminals and dispenses via the chutes conveniently placed for easy access by the staff. You can also request non-prescription products from the robot while dispensing, eliminating the need to walk away from the customer. "It's a fantastic way of interacting with customers — uninterrupted" says Anthony.

Talking about inventory management, Anthony shared his experience from a week prior where they received their monthly bulk order mid-afternoon and they loaded it all into the machine and by the time they returned the next morning, everything had been put away in it's place inside the machine...

"It's phenomenal and has changed the way we operate in the pharmacy. Nobody needs to stay back after hours to put away stock — it's all done for you and correctly," he smiled.

Anthony Hrysoudis, HealthSmart Pharmacy Melbourne

The pharmacy hasn't yet quantified time saved, but on average they save over 90 minutes of the pharmacist's time per day. "With the time saved we are aiming to improve patient outcomes by delivering more services, focusing more on what we are trained for. We've put in an application to the hospital for a consulting room so we can expand our service portfolio. Currently we are doing Meds Checks and Diabetes Meds Checks. We've built a small counselling area next to our scripts-in counter and currently use that space for some of the more private counselling. We do not offer compounding in the pharmacy but our sister pharmacy across the road at the PeterMac Cancer Centre provides that service and is open 24 hours" explains Anthony.

"I'm a big advocate of automation in pharmacy and I'm travelling to Europe to look at some of their systems and see what we can bring back to Australia in terms of technology and processes. Historically, the size of the European pharmacies has been much smaller so they need to be more efficient with processes and space. We would love to have some of the shop front automated as well — my staff will love that! Let's see what I can bring back and implement in pharmacy" shares Anthony.

Talking further about technology in pharmacy, Anthony says that he has been very impressed with the Vmotion screens that were at display at the APP trade show! The screens are integrated into the pharmacy set-up so that you're looking at the products on the in-built screen on your pharmacy counter and can request for exact products to be sent to you at the counter while you're still having that conversation with the customer — it's great!

Anthony highlights that the difference between his pharmacy and some of the others in the area is that his staff is well trained and are keen to have conversations with the customers assisting them with their needs whether it is an off the shelf medication or other retail items. "I want to avoid staff walking around the shop trying to locate the right product and want to reduce stock handling; hence my interest in studying what other pharmacies are doing to avoid that," he explained.

The pharmacy has 7-8 staff each day including 2-3 pharmacists depending on what time of the day you come into the pharmacy. The pharmacy attends to approximately 300 customers per day and that ratio works well for them. For staff engagement, the pharmacy has monthly staff meetings which are an open forum for staff to voice opinions on product range or processes or discuss other issues. As a result the staff feels part of a team and are involved in all important decisions that are taken with regards to the pharmacy.

"In terms of automating communications with our customers we use Meds Advisor. We find Meds Advisor works well both from a claiming point of view and a patient point of view. We also have independent temperature monitoring for our fridges. I get a text message and an email if the fridge goes out of range at any time — it's a great service to have and ensures peace of mind when i'm not in pharmacy. Our payroll is automated as well, and we use the Guild Payroll service that is powered by Wageloch" says Anthony while addressing back end automation.

Anthony feels optimistic about the future of pharmacy and can see pharmacies moving away from the supply model and focusing more on delivering services. In the future as the role of pharmacies becomes more important in the delivery of health care, he hopes pharmacies can get approval for Medicare provider number and patients don't need to pay out of pocket for some of the services delivered.

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Bayswater Amcal Pharmacy

Located next to a Medical Centre, Bayswater Amcal Pharmacy has new fit outs and is owned and operated by Tam Nguygen. Tam bought the pharmacy 3 years ago and soon after installed the dispensing robot that is now fully integrated with the pharmacy. We spoke to Kim, her pharmacist in charge, about how the pharmacy has benefited from the decision.

According to Kim, bringing in savings in time and making processes more efficient were the primary reasons for installing the robot in pharmacy. Given the proximity to the Medical Centre, the pharmacy has a strong focus on dispensing and customer care. "As a team we wanted to have more time on hand interacting with the customers and helping them get better outcomes, rather than just be focused on dispensing," says Kim. When the transition to robotic dispensing took place, the team was provided full guidance and consultation at each junction of the journey, including full product training. As a result, they had complete confidence in the pharmacy's digital transition and transformation. "The process of actually installing the robot wasn't disruptive to the regular business at all," she said.

"Previously, when we received stock it took me or another pharmacist almost a day organising the stock and putting it away. Now, all we have to do is tip all the stock into the dispenser, which takes 5-10 minutes and then the machine does the rest. We can focus on our customers — which is at the heart of our business. Inventory management is part of the robotic dispenser and it can print off a spreadsheet anytime we want a report on inventory. It can also alert you to low stocks. We still place our orders daily and the machine is linked with FRED office."

Kim - Pharmacist in Charge Bayswater Amcal Pharmacy

The pharmacy has 3 full-time and 1 part-time pharmacists and 5 pharmacy assistants. Bayswater can be a challenging area in terms of the range of issues and ailments the pharmacy is presented with. "We also run an ORT program for about 50 patients which has been challenging at times but good for the pharmacy and the community," says Kim.

Talking about how the pharmacy team works together, Kim says "Tam and I spend a few hours every week discussing what is working for the pharmacy and what needs to be done to make it better. In addition we also have monthly staff meetings to ensure that the staff understand what direction the pharmacy is going in and they are invited to voice their opinions or concerns."

Given the size of the pharmacy and the number of staff employed, Tam hasn't had the need to invest in automating payroll yet and manages it on her own. Looking towards the future, the pharmacy is focused on investing more time and resources to introduce additional professional services in pharmacy.