Pharmacies turned in a strong performance in 2021. They continued to be the most accessible healthcare provider in the country and grew further into a central role in patient care.
Good things should be in store for pharmacies in 2022 as well, and pharmacy technology vendors are indeed optimistic about the coming year. They uniformly report that they will be adding staff, releasing new products and services, and adding new interfaces.
As they do so, what are their best ideas for pharmacies looking to hit the refresh button and add to their capabilities in the coming year?
Services Are Growing
Expect a continued demand for enhanced clinical services. Pharmacies have been building out the tools for patient care recently, and these efforts have only accelerated as part of their COVID-19 response.
The 2021 NCPA Digest digs into this topic and gives some specific examples of the trending services, which include point-of-care testing, and wellness initiatives. The Digest reports that the percentage of pharmacies that are CLIA (Clinical Laboratory
Improvement Amendments of 1988)-waived facilities increased and that immunizations were the number-one wellness service offered by pharmacies. Both of these trends are outcomes of pharmacy’s COVID pandemic response.
Hear more from several of our regular authors about what’s in store for pharmacy in 2022. The participants are: Ann Johnson, Pharm.D., President, Pharmacy Healthcare Solutions; Marsha Millonig, M.B.A., B.Pharm., President and CEO, Catalyst Enterprises; and Bruce Kneeland, independent pharmacy veteran, author, and podcaster.
Part 1: Building on recent success in providing clinical services.
Part 2: What has to happen to create more time within pharmacy workflows.
Part 3: How to best communicate the services pharmacy offers and the value they provide.
Another key highlight from the NCPA Digest pinpoints some of the emerging technologies that pharmacies have been deploying to address patient care and the provision of clinical services, such as appointment scheduling, clinical data exchange, and telehealth.
Is there truly demand for these services? Yes, according to the J.D. Power 2021 U.S. Pharmacy Study. The data shows that 51% of retail pharmacy customers report using pharmacy health and wellness services in a 12-month period, rising from 48% in 2020 and 43% in 2019. J.D. Power found that the most frequently used healthcare services are vaccinations and routine screenings, which matches up well with the report from the NCPA Digest. It’s also worth noting that the J.D. Power 2021 U.S. Pharmacy Study found that health and wellness services are associated with higher patient satisfaction and spending.
Harnessing the Trends
So what are the best ideas that will help pharmacies ensure they are staying out ahead of this growing demand for services? Many revolve around increased efficiency, with a continuing need to find technology that shifts time to patient interactions and away from filling vials and managing claims. This won’t come as news to most pharmacists or pharmacy technology vendors. In fact, Micro Merchant Systems CEO Ketan Mehta sees 2022 as a time for pharmacy staff to continue efforts to provide time and opportunity for pharmacy services and patient engagement. “The ability to move pharmacists and techs from behind the computer and in front of the patients will continue to be key,” says Mehta. “The goal will be to let pharmacy staff truly focus on patient outcomes and let technology handle the data and analysis and drive the profitability of the business.”
While pharmacists will likely be working harder in 2022, they can also be working smarter, for example through refreshed workflows to maximize efficiencies. One place to start, according to DrFirst Strategic Program Manager Heidi Polek, R.Ph., is with an inventory of technology and processes. “Pharmacies want to ensure that state-of-the-art automation and communication tools are being leveraged to deliver the best care collaboration and patient care possible,” she says. Polek notes that artificial intelligence, or AI, should play a larger role in 2022, and pharmacies would do well to keep an eye out for AI-powered solutions.
RxSafe CEO Bill Holmes sees a need for reassessing workflow steps to help technicians improve accuracy and balance workloads. For example, Holmes points out that you can digitize the prescription verification step to allow for workload balancing, free up pharmacist time using AI, or implement pill verification and machine vision inspection for vials, pouches, and blister cards. “We can help staff-strapped independent pharmacies to ease the burden on busy pharmacists by eliminating bottlenecks and reducing the risk of errors,” Holmes says.
Another area where Holmes is seeing a much broader investment by retail-focused pharmacies is packaging automation, which serves to jump-start growth even in the face of staffing shortages for pharmacies that have maxed out their manual packaging capacity. Bringing in packaging automation allows a pharmacy to grow not just in the LTC (long-term care) area, but to expand into offering adherence packaging to retail patients as a way to support existing med sync program participants.
Then there’s central fill, an area not typically on the radar at most community pharmacies. However, Mark Longley, chief strategy and business development officer at Parata Systems, sees many multilocation pharmacies taking a fresh look at central fill as what he calls a cost-effective way to scale up in 2022. “Better utilization of central fill not only contributes to the viability of smaller independent pharmacies and chains,” says Longley, “but also makes care more accessible for those in rural areas and areas where travel options are complicated or limited, especially for older populations.” According to Longley, the market has now grown to offer scalable central fill and even what he calls micro-central fill, both of which can work for smaller pharmacies looking to establish wider ranges for distribution and offer more types of packaging.
Connections Will Be Key
Pharmacies will want to be on the lookout for technology that can further cement their ability to provide the highest levels of service. In this case there will be a need for fresh ideas for communicating with patients and managing the pharmacy patient interaction. This may require investments in forecasting tools, cloud-based tools for practice management and patient interactions, and interfaces and interoperability to ensure that pharmacies are best able to operate at peak efficiency and connect with all of the most current tools for serving patients, including the burgeoning field of digital health products.
Speed Script National Accounts Manager Birgit Heidel says interoperability and health information exchange will be a primary area of focus, and will lead to new pieces of the puzzle for pharmacies looking to reduce administrative burdens. “Streamlined interfaces and data feeds are a top priority for us,” she says. “In 2022, pharmacies can look for better, more efficient reporting, for example, to state immunization information systems and prescription drug monitoring programs.” Heidel expects interoperability to have a positive impact on patient care management as well, by improving a pharmacy’s ability to track who on staff has engaged with patients and why.
Look for fresh ideas for interfaces too, such as those for inventory management within the pharmacy and customer loyalty and merchandising tools that can tie into point-of-sale systems on the front end.
The best ideas for pharmacies in 2022 will be those that automate as many manual processes as possible, according to Meditab Software CEO Paragi Patel. “We are focused on three things,” says Patel. “One, enhancing software automation to minimize user intervention; two, providing robust apps and portals to engage patients, LTC facilities, caregivers, and physicians to improve patient outcomes; and three, enhancing purchase automation to select the most cost-effective vendors while improving inventory turns. We believe that improvements in these three areas will allow pharmacies to reduce costs and engage both patients and their care team to improve outcomes.”
Putting Patients at the Center
Whatever goes onto a pharmacy’s list of best ideas for 2022, it’s important to think about how each one puts patient-focused pharmacy services front and center. If the trends and advice covered aren’t enough to convince, note the growing group of so-called digital pharmacies marketing themselves primarily around the patient-centric model as they attempt to disrupt the market with consumer-focused technology platforms built from the ground up. Whether these pharmacies bring anything truly new to the market is an open question. They certainly aren’t serving the community with such in-person services as immunizations and point-of-care testing. Are they underestimating the many ways in which traditional pharmacies can build on their ability to connect with and serve patients? 2022 will offer those pharmacies willing to put fresh ideas into practice opportunities to cement their value to patients. You can be sure that traditional pharmacies of all kinds and the technology vendors that support them will be working their hardest to make their best ideas bear fruit in 2022. CT