When we think of pharmacy technology, we typically think of improvements to robotics, pill counters, or IVR (interactive voice response). Printers are simply a means to an end, and not thought of much until there is a problem with one in your pharmacy. And most people in our industry think of printing as something done only for prescription labels and patient advisory leaflets. Certainly these are the most important uses, but additional requirements often drive how printers are used.
First, a little history. In the early years, printers were dot matrix. Then the introduction of laser printers brought fast, quiet, flexible printing to our industry. Yet dot matrix had one advantage over laser — it was far less expensive. I mention this because it is worth noting that we are willing to pay more in certain instances if the benefits are strong enough.
Today, almost all pharmacies use a combination of laser printers and thermal printers. Until thermal printers were introduced, laser printed everything in pharmacy, and still could today if needed (CVS is the lone holdout that continues to use laser exclusively). So why the addition of thermal? If you print everything on a laser, then you need to use what are known as dual-web label sheets that marry plain paper with labels. These are very expensive and also very difficult to run through a laser printer. If you try to run these through a typical off-the-shelf laser printer, you will have more paper jams than are worth putting up with. That is why 100% of the pharmacy laser printer market went to one company — Lexmark. Lexmark was the only company willing to modify its lasers to work with dual-web labels. So why add a second (thermal) printer, when lasers can technically handle all of a pharmacy’s printing needs? For two reasons. First, lasers are far more expensive to run and maintain than thermal. Ever hear anyone say how much they enjoy paying for the toner cartridges? Thermal has no consumables. And when you need maintenance on a laser, it is far more expensive. A new drum and the service to install it are very expensive and require a technician. The primary part you replace on a thermal printer is the print head. But this is a fraction of the cost of the laser drum, and can be accomplished in two minutes without a technician. Plus, the printer head lasts longer than a laser drum. One big advantage of bringing thermal printers into a pharmacy is that, quite simply, the less you use a laser printer, the better for your bottom line. However, the primary reason that most pharmacies use thermal printers is because it improves the workflow. With thermals, you can separate out the printing tasks and move your lasers from the beginning of the fill process to the end. Think of how many times you must reprint a vial label. Now you don’t need to reprint all of the patient advisory information along with it.
These are the primary benefits behind pharmacies using laser and thermal printing. But what about the other uses for pharmacy printers? Lasers are still the best solution for printing in-store administrative reports. And they are often used for the shelf labels, and sometimes for the shelf talker displays, which are changed frequently. But even when we come to these secondary uses, it turns out that you have options.
Some pharmacies choose to print shelf labels with their lasers. This works fine, but puts added use on these expensive printers and wastes labels. The labels come in sheets, and quite often you only print part of a sheet, then have to throw out the remaining labels. Other stores choose to print the shelf labels at each store, but using different, portable thermal printers than the ones in their pharmacies. This may cost more in the short run, but provides for immediate label changes when needed, and is highly efficient. Finally, some stores contract out this printing job, and have a service bureau do it for them with very high volume printers.
As you can see, there are more choices than most people think of when it comes to printers in pharmacies, and that is why my company is often asked to study an individual chain’s needs and suggest what combination of printers and methods would work best for them. Technology continues to change, and pharmacies need to change with it. CT
Wes Moffett is president of Printed Solutions, which specializes in helping pharmacies deploy printers and labels that improve workflow and save money. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.