ScriptPro CEO and Founder Mike Coughlin
ScriptPro Founder and CEO Mike Coughlin

Mike Coughlin, founder and CEO of ScriptProtook pharmacy to the next level of technology in making the dispensing process more efficient and safer. Pharmacies have benefited as well as patients. That said, ScriptPro is a company that has transformed the dispensing process. In this interview with ComputerTalk‘s publisher, Bill Lockwood, Mike tells us how it all came about and the trajectory of the company since then.

ComputerTalk: You are the person who brought robotic dispensing to the pharmacy market. Let’s start with how you came up with the idea.

Mike Coughlin: In the mid-1990s, we began exploring ways to help pharmacists and support staff who were struggling to keep up in busy retail and hospital ambulatory pharmacies. We saw reports in the press and medical literature of tragic results when there was a pharmacy error. Wait times, stress on staff and patients, and stories about dispensing errors or other bad experiences in pharmacies were common discussion topics.

Then, and even to a greater extent today, healthcare tends to be based on medications. Patients receive medications by the billions from chain, independent, and hospital pharmacies. Pharmacists and support staff are on the front line answering questions and giving advice on a range of subjects. In addition to addressing medications with patients and doctors, they deal with insurance complexities and help patients make difficult choices about how or whether to pay for their prescriptions — all while they retrieve and return drug stock bottles, count pills, and peel and stick labels. ScriptPro looked for a way to use robotics to relieve pharmacy staff of this last step so they could devote more attention to the other functions.

As we worked on designing a pharmacy robot, ScriptPro sponsored a national dispensing error study that was performed by a team at Auburn University. The study became a landmark in the field of medication errors when it reported: “Dispensing errors are a problem on a national level, at a rate of about four errors per day in a pharmacy filling 250 prescriptions daily. An estimated 51.5 million errors occur during the filling of 3 billion prescriptions each year.” When we released our first robot in 1997, the industry was ready.

CT: What was the development time on the first robot?

Coughlin: About three and a half years.

CT: And where was the first beta site?

Coughlin: The University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, where ScriptPro has always had its home base.

CT: When did you introduce the system to the pharmacies?

Coughlin: At the National Association of Chain Drug Stores annual convention held in Boston in October 1997.

CT: It seems to me that with the high cost of pharmacist and technician salaries, a robot would be a good investment. Your thoughts?

Coughlin: It has been a great investment from the very beginning. Our earliest customers recovered their investment quickly and have enjoyed the benefits of robotics ever since. We have taken care of our customers from the start with 24/7/365 all-inclusive customer support at a very affordable rate. We have protected our early adopters and the many who came later through continuous hardware and software upgrades. Our policy has always been to offer these improvements as retrofits to our installed base. In 1995 I recruited an aircraft manufacturer to help us design some of the critical systems. Many of our earliest robots are still running today with no end of life in sight.

CT: How many pharmacy management systems now provide an interface to the system?

Coughlin: All of them.

CT: You didn’t stop with robotics. You went on to develop a pharmacy management system as well. What does your product line look like today?

Coughlin: While we are still the same company with the same culture, ScriptPro today is much more than the ScriptPro that developed the first robotic pharmacy dispensing system 25 years ago.

ScriptPro used its robotic dispensing experience to develop a comprehensive suite of integrated hardware and software products that pharmacies use to ensure operational efficiency and accuracy. This includes a workflow system that employs the barcode controls and prescription labeling processes built into the robots. It incorporates the drug database we built for the robots and extended to print drug images and markings on prescription labels so patients can verify for themselves that they have the right drug. It can be the anchor of a telepharmacy network. Our latest invention is a robot that manages bags waiting for patient pickup to prevent handout errors.

Today, ScriptPro offers integrated solutions that meet the needs of the full range of pharmacies, from the basic to the most advanced. It replaces a collection of applications that are otherwise required to get the job done. There is nothing even close to this available in the market.

CT: Now tell us a little about your background.

Coughlin: I had a great teacher in high school, Sister Mary Kathleen. She got me interested in chemistry and physics. I went to St. Louis University, where I received a B.S. in physics and the James I. Shannon award upon graduation. I had many jobs that added to my government loans in order to get through SLU. My favorite job was analyzing Explorer IV satellite telemetry data in the physics department.

Upon graduation I was awarded a fellowship to study physics at Ohio State University. I received an M.S. in physics and an M.B.A. at OSU. I also worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories while in Columbus.

Hewlett-Packard hired me out of graduate school. I went to Palo Alto to become manufacturing operations manager of their fledgling microelectronics department. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were still there, and the term “Silicon Valley” had not yet been coined. A “chip” was still a “potato chip.” At HP I learned to love the concept of making technology products do important jobs.

My wife Sherry and I decided to move our young family (the first two of our four daughters were with us then) back to the Midwest. We were both from Topeka, so we moved to Kansas City, where I took a job in management consulting with Arthur Andersen & Co., then one of the big five accounting firms. I became a manager in the firm and obtained the certified public accountant designation.

I then started MEC Management Company, an accounting, business development, and systems integration firm that became the incubator for ScriptPro.

CT: Before we close, is there anything else you would like to offer?

Coughlin: I have always had a desire to make things work well. Whether it’s a robot or a company with an expansive vision of what the world needs. I enjoy contributing to the effort of developing mechanisms and processes that help enterprises like ScriptPro and its customers do their jobs. It’s a privilege and an honor to shoulder these responsibilities and to have the trust of others. CT

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