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Pharmacies look to technology to broaden model

BY Jim Frederick

Pharmacy automation in the 21st century isn’t really about futuristic, multitasking robots, weight-based pill-counting machines, scanner-driven verification systems and other technological gizmos that drive the counting, pouring, licking and sticking that used to define the practice of prescription dispensing.

Those devices are critical to modern pharmacy, especially in higher-volume settings. But in 2007, their importance is measured in terms that go beyond the labor-saving capabilities that were once the end-all of pharmacy technology.

These days, any chain or independent pharmacy pouring big sums into pharmacy automation is investing in more than just the streamlining of dispensing workflow, as important as that is. To be successful, pharmacy operators must invest in systems that will track and support the community pharmacy industry’s leap beyond dispensing and into a broader role in integrated patient care.

That means automation systems that extend the pharmacist’s reach and provide a seamless platform where pharmacists, patients, physicians and health plans can come together to improve patient outcomes, manage a total therapeutic regimen and make health care more cost effective. It means using technology as an Internet-driven interface tool to drive patient compliance, electronic prescribing, health information technology, telepharmacy, offsite dispensing, proper inventory levels and other critical issues.

Indeed, to be truly effective, the tools that define pharmacy automation should start to become almost invisible as they become a ubiquitous and seamless part of an integrated pharmacy practice.

“Workflow is more than adding efficiency in the pharmacy. It will also enhance patient safety,” said Paulette Slaughter, chain pharmacy market analyst with QS/1 Data Systems.

“Central workflow, specifically claim error resolution, will allow claim denials to be handled by an expert at a remote location,” Slaughter told Drug Store News. Removing that task from the pharmacy will allow for pharmacists to spend more time counseling patients.

On another front, some pharmacy operators are giving a second look to another variation of central fill or offsite dispensing, popularly known as telepharmacy. In an era of chronic shortages of pharmacists and rising labor costs, the technology allows for the real-time, remote dispensing of prescriptions to patients in non-pharmacy locations, far removed from the pharmacist but linked directly with that professional via a live, two-way video monitor.

One technology vendor making a big push into remote dispensing is ScriptPro, the retail pharmacy industry’s largest provider of robotic dispensing systems, including the company’s workhorse SP 200.

By ScriptPro’s own description, telepharmacy involves the use by pharmacists of telecommunications technology “to systematically provide personalized, electronically documented real-time professional services to patients at a remote location, including prescription dispensing and counseling, and to oversee and supervise remote pharmacy operations.”

To that end, the company is actively marketing a remote-dispensing telepharmacy system consisting of a two-way communications and script-filling system, whereby a store clerk in any non-pharmacy location can serve as the dispensing agent for the medication.

The patient and the clerk both communicate directly with a pharmacist at a central pharmacy, via a camera mounted on the clerk’s in-store computer and a live video monitor. The script is filled and dispensed at the remote site via a compact robotic dispenser and checked via bar codes and real-time electronic communications by the pharmacist.

The nationwide move to eprescribing also is accelerating, as physicians begin to embrace handheld devices and other communications and data storage technologies that will link directly with pharmacies. Among recent milestones in paperless prescribing was the decision by the state of Alaska to clear away the last hurdles to e-prescribing, capping a three-year, lobbying effort by pharmacy leaders, electronic prescribing advocates and technology vendors.

Another breakthrough came in September, with the formation of a 10-member advisory group, composed of technology and electronic communications experts, charged with spurring the nationwide adoption of e-prescribing.

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Fred’s reports both monthly and quarterly record sales

BY Allison Cerra

MEMPHIS, Tenn. Fred’s Inc. reported record sales for the five-week and eight-month periods which ended Oct. 6, 2007.

The company said Friday that its total sales for the month increased 2 percent to $161.4 million compared to the same period last year. Total sales for the year-to-date period increased 5 percent to $1.157 billion.

Same store sales for the month rose 1 percent on top of a 5 percent increase in September last year. On a comparable store basis, sales increased 1.3 percent through the first eight months of fiscal 2007 compared with a 2.7 percent gain in the year-earlier period. Same-store sales are a key predictor of how well the company performs in stores that have been open for several years, and how well the newly open stores will do in the future.

“September sales came in at the low end of our forecasted range of a 1 percent to 3 percent increase, affected by unusually warm weather across our markets and the disruption caused by the updating of 98 stores under our refresher program,” said Fred’s Stores chief executive officer Michael J. Hayes. “We look forward to finishing our refresher program in October with the last 60 stores and to a better economic environment for our customers going forward, as the benefits of the minimum wage increase and the focus of Federal Reserve Board on the credit crunch take hold.”

Fred’s opened four stores at the end of September, bringing total store openings to 22 for the year-to-date period. These new store openings have been balanced by the company’s decision to close underperforming stores. In the remaining months, Fred’s Stores said that it plans to open 14 additional stores, with no further planned closings, which will result in a net increase in stores of 2 percent for the year.

Fred’s Inc. operates 702 discount general merchandise stores, including 24 franchised stores in the southeastern United States.

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Target to open another 61 stores nationwide

BY Allison Cerra

MINNEAPOLIS Target announced that it will be opening an additional 61 Target stores, the company said Friday.

The stores, which will all open Oct. 14, will open in 22 different states. The majority of the stores are making their debut in Arizona, California, Ohio and Texas.

In addition to offering the latest in trend-right merchandise, Target also brings a 44-year tradition of community involvement. The retail chain commits itself to local communities donating more than $3 million each week to area nonprofit organizations, becoming involved in local volunteerism efforts through Target Volunteers, and orchestrating other special projects that help meet area social service, arts and education needs.

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