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    NONFOODS: Pharmacy Automation: Robo-touch

    Looking ahead to persistent shortages of skilled personnel, Schnucks and Brookshire Bros. are trying robotic prescription dispensers to keep service levels up to snuff.

    Something's ailing pharmacy counters across the country. Here are the symptoms: It's cough and cold season, so the pharmacy techs are doing all they can just to keep up with incoming prescriptions, which arrive nonstop. A prescription label prints out from the pharmacy's computer, and seeing this, the pharmacist has to cut short his conversation with a customer and fill the prescription himself. He grabs the label, walks to the shelf, finds the correct bottle, brings it to the counter, pours pills, counts them, verifies the prescription, packages it, and then brings the bottle back to the shelf.

    In the meantime not just one, but three regular customers have left, angry that no one was available to answer their questions.

    This is a sickness that pharmacy automation companies say they can cure with robotic prescription dispensers. Although the technology has been available for years, pharmacy operators in the grocery space are only now starting to pay closer attention, especially as good pharmacists become ever harder to find.

    "There are so many tedious tasks involved with running a pharmacy," says Ken Breda, pharmacy district director for Lufkin, Texas-based Brookshire Bros. "Filling a prescription manually takes from two to three minutes from start to finish. Plus there are phone calls coming in and customers to serve."

    Brookshire Bros. operates 52 supermarket pharmacies at its stores in western Louisiana, primarily in rural areas where there are a shortage of pharmacists. It has launched a test of robotics in its Livingston store, to support John the Pharmacist.

    "Our business is based on customer service," says Breda. "Our [Livingston] pharmacist -- his name is John Musny, but everyone calls him 'John the Pharmacist -- is very well known in the community and spends a lot of time talking with customers. In these rural towns many people depend on the pharmacist for their quick, nonemergency medical needs. So we need to take as much of the routine work out of his hands as possible."

    That's where robotics technology comes in. Breda installed Durham, N.C.-based Parata's RDS unit at the Livingston store, to handle its volume of 150 to 160 prescriptions per hour, freeing hours of labor for value-added activities such as consulting with clients. And that's just what pharmacy automation is designed to do: By automating the routine tasks, it allows John the Pharmacist to do what he does best.

    This is especially true as the number of prescriptions decreases, which means competition is getting tighter. According to FMI's 2005 Supermarket Pharmacy Trends Report, most respondents reported a decrease in prescription sales, primarily because of mail order prescriptions. Because of this, supermarket pharmacies must focus on differentiating themselves to keep market share. For the most part, that means keeping the pharmacist out in front of the customer.

    At St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets, Inc., director of pharmacy operations Curtis Hartin installed Mission, Kan.-based ScriptPro's SP 200 robotic dispenser in three locations that each filled from 300 to 340 prescriptions per day.

    "It saves a lot of steps," says Hartin. "We're still so busy, [but] it gives the pharmacist more time to speak with customers at the counter." Hartin says the stores primarily use the robotic dispensers for high-volume drugs, as this has the greatest impact on efficiency.

    Brookshire Bros. employs a similar strategy. "There are thousands of drugs on the shelf to choose from," says Breda. "We use the unit for those that have the most movement. We can fill 60 percent of our annual volume with the machine, which frees up a tremendous amount of time."

    Another use of the robots is to ensure accuracy and safety. In addition to the high-volume drugs, the Schnucks pharmacies use the machine for controlled substances. Since they're highly regulated, this ensures accurate inventories of them.

    Breda has found that the dispenser is an excellent way to reduce errors caused by similarly spelled drugs. "Quinine and Quinidine, Seroquel and Serzone look very similar next to each other on the shelf, and are the most likely candidates for a mispick," he explains. "The robotic dispenser eliminates any chance of error."

    The way it works

    While each vendor's unit may have its own way of processing prescriptions, all units follow the same basic procedure: Once the prescription is adjudicated via the pharmacy software, it's sent to the robotic dispenser. The machine counts the pills, fills the vial, labels it, and then dispenses it (some dispense capped vials, some don't). The pharmacist pulls the vial from the dispenser, gives it a final check, and then delivers it to the customer.

    In a world where pharmacists are in great demand but short supply, the machines have an additional benefit: enhanced job satisfaction for the pharmacy staff. "It reduces the frustration pharmacists usually experience when they're stuck in the back filling vials instead of consulting with customers," says Hartin. "After all, that's what they went to school for."

    The higher level of satisfaction comes from the dispensers' removal of such tedious work, as well as their easy maintenance. In fact, the only drawback to the units, according to both retailers, is that they take up space in the store and sometimes require retrofitting.

    "We chose Parata's unit because it had the smallest footprint," notes Breda. "All we had to do is remove one shelving bin, which holds about 250 drugs."

    Both Schnucks' Hartin and Brookshire Bros.' Breda see this as a worthwhile trade-off, however. Hartin plans to add a robot to any pharmacy that reaches approximately 300 prescriptions per day in volume.

    Breda plans to add more, too, where volume dictates. "Pharmacy is a very profitable department and a significant portion of our business," he says. "Our new stores will always have a pharmacy. We are adding them as fast as we can. And automation is the way to go with pharmacy."

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