FEATURE: Increasing Profits

Filling Fast, Preventing Errors: Automation’s Role

How many prescriptions is it safe for you to fill in a day? How about in an hour? How do you know if you are catching dispensing errors? What are you doing to prevent errors?

There are answers to these questions for every pharmacy, and they depend heavily on factors such as staffing, the pharmacy’s focus, and the technology in use. Two pharmacists, Marty Hinterlong, owner of the Medicine Shoppe in St. Clair, Mo., and Jeff Papo, co-owner of Tuminaro Pharmacy in Hopewell Junction, N.Y., have put some real thought into these questions and made dispensing automation a central part of their efforts to address the pressure to fill both accurately and quickly.

The Reality of Prescription Volume

Prescription volume is still at the heart of the community pharmacy business model and, as such, it’s generally a case of the greater the better. While the volumes Papo and Hinterlong are processing — a peak of 300 prescriptions a day at Tuminaro Pharmacy and an average of 350 at Hinterlong’s Medicine Shoppe — may not sound particularly extraordinary, both know firsthand the stress that these levels can put on a pharmacy. “The thing is that we talk about averages,” says Papo. “But at any given instant you can go from having zero prescriptions to fill to having 20. You can easily have 15 or 20 people in front of you waiting for medications, with the phone ringing and staff and patients asking you questions. It all happens in an instant.”

The Consequences of Stress

Marty Hinterlong, R.Ph., Medicine Shoppe
Hinterlong is the only pharmacist, supported by up to five technicians. Automation: AutoMed FastFill 64 counting and R800 robotics, as well as three Kirby Lester KL20s.

Hinterlong has long experience with handling strong prescription volume — he won an award in the 1990s for being among the higher-volume Medicine Shoppes. And as someone who began his education as an engineer before moving to pharmacy, his first response to more prescriptions has never been simply bringing in another pharmacist. “Whenever I get another pharmacist in, errors occur,” he says. Hinterlong is also frank about the fact that he has personally experienced the consequences of dispensing while under pressure. “One of the things that not many people know is that about eight years ago I got myself in trouble with the Missouri board of pharmacy,” he says. “What happened was, I was overwhelmed and stupid and I gave 10 Xanax to someone just to get him out of the pharmacy. When I looked back what became clear is that I was plain overwhelmed. I was not crossing my t’s and dotting my i’s.” Hinterlong was placed on disciplined status by the board of pharmacy, which then led to his losing the contract to serve the patients of a smaller payer by the name of Express Scripts. That didn’t matter too much to his business then, but fast forward to today and the merger of Express Scripts and Medco means that this is a huge payer, and Hinterlong has to be able to accept its plans. “I had to enter into negotiations with them and I had to present them with my pharmacy corrective action plan,” he explains. “The automation in my workflow is a key part of that plan.”

Turning to Automation

Tuminaro Pharmacy and Hinterlong’s Medicine Shoppe both have come to rely heavily on a mix of dispensing automation to help create a safe dispensing environment that also places a premium on speed. “Automation makes you fast and it reduces human error,” says Hinterlong. “Look at mail order. Whatever you say about mail order — and I don’t like it — you have to give them kudos for the automated filling process that is highly efficient and focuses on error reduction.” Both pharmacies have robotics and counting technology. Robotics handles almost 40% of oral solids at Tuminaro and almost 70% of the same at the Medicine Shoppe. Both are also using counting technology from Kirby Lester, a KL30 at Tuminaro and three KL20s at the Medicine Shoppe. This is important technology not only for counting oral solids not stocked in the bigger automation, but also for the critical addition of verification via barcode scanning for manual fills.

Jeff Papo, R.Ph., Tuminaro Pharmacy
Six staff total, including Papo, another owner-pharmacist, and a staff pharmacist. Automation: KL30 cassette counter and KL60 robotics.

Interestingly, both Hinterlong and Papo have chosen to use counting with scan verification over other workflow options. Papo, for example, could turn on workflow features in his Rx30 system, but prefers to handle scan verification at the KL30 to save steps. Hinterlong sees the same benefit in his KL20s. “You can do your volume so much more comfortably because you are using barcode scanning to verify for right product every time, and counting at the same time,” says Hinterlong, who has been using barcode scanning for verification in some form since 1997. “We weren’t able to combine these steps before, and that’s why I am so enamored with the KL20.”

Papo learned the value of using the KL30 to scan verify very quickly. It ensures he’s dispensing the right number of unit-of-use medications, e.g., three units for a threemonth supply of an inhaler or three 30-count Nexium bottles, rather than one. And it confirms that he’s picked both the right drug and the right strength. “Benicar is a good example,” he says. “It’s available in six different strength combinations, and the stock bottles all look the same. One of the first weeks we had our KL30, I’m scanning the label and the bottle, and the machine starts yelling at me. I look more closely and it’s telling me I had the wrong strength. I picked the right drug, but I had still made a mistake. I realized just how priceless this extra layer is.”

A Different Kind of Workflow

For Hinterlong, the engineer turned pharmacist, workflow is more than a single machine. It is a fully thought out dispensing environment that is safe and fast and that also allows him to focus on his customers. Hinterlong has divided his Medicine Shoppe into specific filling areas:He handles walk-in prescriptions and interacting with his patients at the front counter, with both of the AutoMed machines and a KL20 within easy reach. “This means that I can fill prescriptions super fast because in two arms’ lengths I’ve got 70% of my volume in the AutoMeds, and the rest I handle with the KL20,” he says. The next area is a side wall, where a technician handles the phone volume, processing refills and calling doctors. Then a technician on the back wall handles e-prescriptions. Each technician has a KL20. All the bulk inventory is kept in a carousel in the center, so that the medications come to Hinterlong and his technicians.

Papo has a customized process based on his automation as well, leveraging the fact that his KL30 and KL60 use the same cassettes. He carefully tracks his fast movers and stocks those in the robotics. He also prefers to keep low-cost, small-sized pills in the KL60, since he may be able to fit thousands of doses in a cassette and not have to refill it for months. He puts large pills into cassettes for the KL30, especially those that are dispensed in high counts. “You plug in your big cassette, and the KL30 ticks off 270 of a large pill very quickly,” says Papo. “You can decide to use two 60-dram vials, or three 40-dram, or whatever you want. Otherwise, big tablets can require two cassettes in the KL60, without a choice of vial size.”

The Need for Speed

While the accuracy of the automation’s counting and the safety of barcode scanning are central benefits, there are also times when flat-out filling speed is the thing most in demand. Papo, for example, reports filling 60 prescriptions in an hour a few times. “I’ve been in here on a Monday morning, and the IVR has gathered a bunch of refill requests while we’ve been closed,” he says. “Literally all by myself, I’m able to fill 60 prescriptions in an hour accurately. I don’t want to do this all the time, but I can with the KL60 and KL30 working together to help me.”

Hinterlong has his own story, filling a remarkable number of prescriptions in three hours this past fall while working with his five technicians. “The first hour I did 111, the next was 100, and the next was 70,” he says. “By 11:30 I was all done with the bulk of my volume and ready for whatever else the day brought.” And while this was an unusually busy morning, Hinterlong’s process makes him comfortable regularly filling 70 or 80 prescriptions an hour, while having everything in the pharmacy under control and every detail checked off. “This is because of everything working together,” he says. “The technology, how I’ve organized the filling flow, and how I’ve assigned staff to the process.”

Make the Investment, See the Return

Hinterlong has spent $300,000 on automation for his pharmacy because it is an important element for creating a consistent and error-free filling workflow and for keeping him ahead of volume increases. “I’m always thinking about how I’m going to handle the volume I will get — for instance, now that I’ll be accepting Express Scripts again,” he says. “If you are cheap and if you have a technician and she doesn’t have all the tools she needs right in front of her, if she is borrowing a printer or a scanner or a counting device or anything, then she is inefficient. And that leads to errors.”

There’s no question that Papo’s seen fewer medication misadventures at Tuminaro Pharmacy since investing in automation. “I don’t find myself explaining our errors to patients anymore,” he says. “We have the technology backing us up, and we can have the confidence to let our technicians do more of the work. The automation lets us all know when we’re on the ball and when we aren’t.” CT

Will Lockwood is senior editor at ComputerTalk. He can be reached at will@computertalk.com.

Side Bar

Catching Errors: An Automation Field Test

Dean Bergeaux, R.Ph., manager of Carmichael’s Pharmacy in Crowley, La., submitted the following report about his recent week-long, real-world test of the impact of a Kirby Lester KL1Plus on preventing dispensing errors.

"We keep a small staff of two pharmacists, myself included, and we average 450 prescriptions a day with older Kirby Lester tablet counters and just visual checking. We found we occasionally made mistakes, usually dispensing the wrong strength. Every once in a while an error would involve the wrong medication or quantity. Most occurrences were caught during the final pharmacist check, but not 100%. It’s easy to see how; we’re on the phone all day, going back and forth to the shelves, talking to patients, managing the pharmacy, doing a million things at once. And we had no technology backup. We were mostly accurate, but far from perfect.

Earlier in 2013, we had a serious misfill. On a very busy day, a wrong medication got to a patient, and the patient had complications — nothing long-term, thankfully, and we took care of it. But we were at risk. That is when I started investigating technology to prevent errors.

In September I brought in the Kirby Lester KL1Plus, a small, simple tablet counter with built-in scan verification software. I have to scan the patient label first, then scan the stock bottle or boxed medication, then count. During the test I used the KL1Plus for all prescriptions, not just tablets and capsules. The device alerted us to any potential mistake or ‘near miss.’

From Sept. 3 to Sept. 10, we recorded how many times the KL1Plus flagged a potential mistake:

  • Wrong medication: Four instances

  • Wrong strength: One instance

  • Wrong quantity: One instance

Total ‘near misses’: Six instances over eight days

The KL1Plus didn’t negatively affect our workflow. Filling on the KL1Plus is about as fast as our old visual process. But the peace of mind was instant and dramatic. When you scan the label and the medication and everything comes up OK, you are reassured.

I don’t care what processes you have — if humans are involved, there’s room for error.”

GSL Intellicab