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The Future of Pharmacy: Confronting Automation

Nearly half of jobs in America have the potential to be eliminated by technology within the next two decades. The impact of computerization on the labor market is well established in the literature. Oxford's 2013 study confirms the decline of employment in routine occupations—jobs mainly consisting of tasks following well-defined operations that can easily be written into a sophisticated algorithm and then performed by a computer.

What Types of Jobs Are Automated?

Customer-empathy positions and manual tasks of the service industry are less susceptible to automation; however, the 50-50 chance that a robot could replace you still exists.

We all are aware of jobs that are moving toward automation, such as manufacturing, banking kiosks, diagnostic tasks for medical records, sorting legal briefs for law firms, robots for climbing wind turbines, and vehicle controllers. As technological abilities expand, automation can be expected to slowly substitute low-wage service occupations.

Pharmacies Are Confronting Automation

Hospitals are already employing autonomous robots to transport food and prescriptions—both retail and hospital pharmacies are a target for automation. An important distinction to make, however, is that pharmacy automation is not a generic term for a robot.

Pharmacy automation, in general, refers to a variety of hardware and software solutions that meet very specific and unique needs of a particular pharmacy. Examples include:

  • Inventory management
  • Pill sorter, counter, and packing machines—large and small scale
  • Barcode medicine identification
  • Dispensing cabinets and devices
  • Delivery robots
  • Remote-dispensing system
  • Compounding medication
  • Drug Interaction and allergy checks
  • Tracking medical history
  • Tracking and updating patient database
  • Narcotic and controlled substance monitoring

Before the implementation of automated dispensing machines on hospital floors the pharmacy relied heavily on manual distribution systems, such as a medication cart and basic floor stock. In addition to being labor intensive—holding only a 24-hour supply—other concerns with these carts included, inventory control, delivery of the first dose, loss of doses, and "borrowing" of patients' medication, inaccurate drug charges, and no tracking of wasted drugs.

Systems such as these are prone to problems. Automated dispensing machines were implemented to improve efficiency and control of medications in the hospital—they provide a good balance between accessibility, security, and control of inventory. Now, this computerized trend is carrying over to outpatient and retail settings.

In general, there are two pharmacy automation settings within the international pharmacy automation business; each contains sub-settings:

  • Inpatient Setting

    • Acute-care
    • Long-term care
  • Outpatient Setting

    • Retail pharmacy chains
    • Outpatient/fast-track care
    • Hospital retail
    • Pharmacy benefit management services and other mail-order settings.

Welcome Pharmacy Automation

It is time to embrace the massive machines in the hospital and the vending machines deployed in retail pharmacies. The use of computerization reduces medication errors, simplifies inventory, and improves cash flow.

With computerization, medications are packaged when the order is received—each system is interfaced with the pharmacy's operating system. Pharmacies are investing in dispensing technology because of the known value of accuracy and productivity.

According to BBC research in 2016:

The global inpatient and outpatient pharmacy automation market has grown to nearly $3.8 billion in 2016 from $3.5 billion in 2015. The market is expected to grow at a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.9% from 2016 to 2021, increasing to $5.5 billion in 2021.

Research and anecdotal evidence shows:

One could conclude from the noted studies that a pharmacy with a high daily prescription volume would benefit from some type of automation. Information technology is universally regarded as an essential tool for enhancing the characteristics of an organization.

Successful facilitation of technology requires an understanding of how individuals adopt innovations. When incorporating several theories, such as Roger's innovation diffusion theory, the Concerns-Based Adoption Model, and the Technology Acceptance Model, you can construct a unique perception of the different "adopters" of automation within the pharmacy profession.

  • The “innovators or adopters” welcome computerization wholeheartedly, believing that innovation is a viable way to confront many challenges in in-patient and out-patient pharmacy settings.
  • The “avoiders” wait to consider and invest in automation. They may be apprehensive because of the cost; or fear it may be disruptive to their practices; or may view the technology as too confusing even to begin implementation.
  • The “cautious” know that automation can assist with problems and operate their business more efficiently, but they are not sure where to start. Also known as the laggers in Roger's innovation diffusion theory.

Future-Proof Roles in the Pharmacy

A computer doesn't need a pharmacy technician certification (CPhT) or an advanced degree. But according to industry observers and pharmacy staff, pharmacy robots are not going to replace jobs. Yes, they are taking over tasks that an algorithm can do, such as counting pills, filling bottles, and checking for drug-to-drug interactions; however, this is freeing up the techs and the pharmacists to do patient education and higher-order jobs.

Direct patient care from pharmacy staff is on the rise since the mechanical aspects of the pharmacy are moving toward automation—human behavior and empathy are not replaceable by robots.

Pharmacy staff members are adopting future-proof roles and programs—some of these include:

Pharmacy support staff, namely technicians, are in demand among employers. The roles for pharmacy technicians are growing along side of automation; therefore, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is expecting a 9% increase in job growth from 2014 to 2024.

Education to adapt to the new landscape includes identifying social intelligence tasks within your career. Human social intelligence involves negotiation, caring, emotional support, and an awareness of other's reactions.

Bill Nye, in the video Will Robots Take Everyone's Job?, expresses that robots will not replace thinking and creativity—he states, "There will be many jobs that will require human involvement."

People can take control of their profession by paying attention what's happening within their field and committing to becoming a lifelong learner.

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