By Gary Paragpuri
Running a pharmacy business in 2019 is tough and there is little sign of this letting up any time soon.
Stagnant funding, deprescribing initiatives, rising costs and emerging new business models that threaten the traditional pharmacy network are but a few of the ongoing pressures threatening the sector.
At the same time, a future built on funding for clinical services remains a distant hope and pay structures remain wedded to the dispensing of prescriptions. But if you read PSNC CEO Simon Dukes’ column in last month’s Pharmacy Business, it’s clear that change is coming.
Dukes points to the fact that the government wants to see greater efficiencies in pharmacy through increased use of technology, enabling more to be made of pharmacists’ clinical skills. It’s down to the sector to decide how this will work in practice, he says, highlighting that it could lead to difficult decisions ahead for both multiples and independents, with questions likely to be asked over the viability of some branches and consolidation a very real prospect.
You could be forgiven for thinking, after reading Dukes’ stark warnings, that community pharmacy is failing to adapt to new technologies – but that’s simply not true. New business models for the delivery of pharmacy services are everywhere and they are gaining traction.
Data doesn’t lie
Take the latest available NHS dispensing numbers from PharmData as evidence. In May, three of the four highest dispensing pharmacies weren’t traditional bricks and mortar pharmacies but internet-based operations. It’s not just the huge number of items they dispense each month that’s impressive but also their remarkable growth rates of 50 to 100 per cent over the past year.
And the data doesn’t lie. Having medicines sent to your home is a service valued by hundreds of thousands of patients. Drill down further into the numbers and you can see that these patients come from many hundreds of GP surgeries. And there’s every chance that, if you own a pharmacy, then you may have already lost some patients to an internet competitor.
As well as internet pharmacies, the emergence of hub and spoke dispensing operations, particularly when coupled with electronic prescriptions and mobile apps for ordering repeat medicines, bring a whole new dynamic to the way patients use pharmacy services.
Patients can use their mobile phones to order their repeats, which are sent electronically to their nominated pharmacy. Assembly robots in the pharmacy’s central hub dispense the scripts and the patient is then sent a message to tell them their medicines are ready for collection in the local branch.
From a patient’s perspective, the convenience of this model simply reflects what they’ve grown to expect in a world where companies such as Amazon have reshaped our understanding of service and delivery.
At Hub and Spoke Innovations, we supply pharmacies with a medicine collection robot, enabling patients to collect their dispensed medicines 24-hours a day. It’s a patient-driven service that further demonstrates how pharmacists are using tech to transform their dispensing processes and enhance customer service levels.
The pharmacies we work with, which range from independents and multiple groups through to prison-based pharmacies, realise they spend just as much time handing out bags of medicines as they do dispensing them.
Take a look at the shelves of an average pharmacy and there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of bags awaiting collection. Many of these are regular repeats with no material change, and automating the handing out process can free significant staff capacity for pharmacy teams while also giving patients greater convenience to collect when it suits them.
Taking time to step back and review how automation can free staff from simple manual processes has brought major benefits. These include unlocking hours of dispensing time a day, cutting queues, making the pharmacy environment calmer, winning new prescription business and even reducing the number of home deliveries.
There’s a reason nobody handwrites labels any more, and if pharmacy wants to accelerate the shift towards a future based on delivering clinical care, then every contractor has to consider how they can use tech to ensure their business is part of the government’s vision.
For pharmacy, the evolution of tech-led dispensing models has already begun. And those that embrace this opportunity with gusto could be the ones who end up leading the revolution.
Gary Paragpuri is CEO of Hub and Spoke.
This article also appears in the October issue of Pharmacy Business.