COVID-19 has changed hospital pharmacies permanently. Many took on new responsibilities during the pandemic, in no small part thanks to medication-use guideline updates. Pharmacies became responsible for handling hospital gaps in hand sanitizers, disinfectants, and medications. At the same time, fewer elective prescriptions and new prescriptions are lowering revenue for pharmacies.
These increased demands have caused staffing issues to worsen. In January 2020, 75% of pharmacists reported symptoms of burnout. Many pharmacy workers left the profession for greener pastures. By May 2021, 80% of pharmacies reported struggles to fill open positions. Pharmacy techs and front-end employees suffer the highest vacancy rates. Across the board, healthcare workers are retiring faster than new recruits can be trained. Attempts to attract and keep workers with higher wages and better benefits is effective, but it increases costs at a time when many pharmacies struggle with breaking even.
Before the pandemic, drug shortages were the #1 issue faced by hospital pharmacies. COVID-19’s supply chain difficulties compounded the issue. 86% reported increased drug shortages due to the pandemic. The medications hospitals are commonly short of include albuterol inhalers, sedatives and anesthetics, and neuromuscular blockers. Most pharmacies have needed to change their acquisition, products, and inventory levels to compensate.
Pharmacy automation technologies can provide solutions to many of these problems. There are numerous opportunities for automation in a central pharmacy; inventory management can track controlled substances, shortages, and expiration dates to encourage efficient allocation of resources. A pill sorter, counter, and packaging machine can fill prescriptions faster. Drug interaction and allergy checks could save patients from potentially lethal combinations of medication. All of these goals could be accomplished with fewer people in the pharmacy. Rather than removing existing workers, automation can make it so that vacancies already present don’t need to be filled.
Technology reduces the number of human touch points separating a patient from their prescribed medication. An automated dispensing system is also more cost effective than a human pharmacy tech. The machine can pick up to 700 medications per hour compared to a human’s 120. Operating a dispensing machine has the average cost of $12 an hour whereas a pharmacy tech’s average hourly earnings is $18.
In 2020, hospital pharmacies changed their top technology initiatives, with many now favoring operational technology. 4 in 10 say the technology is critical to their success. By 2024, the global market for pharmacy automation will reach nearly $8 billion.