For the final story of the year we asked vendors and pharmacies what they thought the key issues, technologies, and goals will be for the coming year, 2021. Despite what you might think based on a tumultuous and challenging 2020, there is a great deal of optimism for the coming year among technology vendors.
One hundred percent of respondents feel that 2021 will be a better year in sales than 2020, and all are also planning on releasing new products and services in the coming year. Nine out of 10 are adding interfaces to their systems in the coming year, and more than 75% plan to add staff.
What this shows is that pharmacy technology vendors continue to keep their eyes on expanding resources and building new tools to meet the current and future needs of their pharmacy user bases.
The Keywords for Pharmacy in 2021
We asked vendors to tell us in three or four words what they think will make the biggest impact in pharmacy this coming year. Not surprisingly, many of the responses touched on COVID-19 — for example, the need to focus on supporting pharmacists as COVID-19 immunization providers or by listing tools and technologies to help manage pharmacies in a pandemic. Among those are tools to control pharmacist-patient interactions and support remote interactions, for example, telemedicine, touchless pharmacy, and a strong digital presence.
RxSafe CEO Bill Holmes notes that he sees the COVID pandemic having far-reaching impacts on the future of pharmacy. “2020 marks the ‘death knell’ for vial filling,” says Holmes. “Ignore at your peril. Traditional vial filling inherently has many touchpoints during filling and consumption.” Adherence packaging can also address the need to elevate and personalize a pharmacy’s offerings.
Jennifer Zilka, group VP of Good Neighbor Pharmacy Field Programs and Services at AmerisourceBergen, notes that another outcome of the shift toward limiting in-person interactions means that pharmacies now more than ever need to be capable of providing patients with an authentic, “always on” experience. “Innovative technology that streamlines and amplifies how pharmacies attract, engage, and retain their patients will be crucial as we move forward into new territory,” says Zilka.
Several replies also touched on clinical services and adherence-focused services such as packaging. Several others touched on broader market issues that continue to be top-of-mind, such as reimbursements, building efficiency within the pharmacy through automation, and finding ways to diversify pharmacy businesses to create new revenue streams and strengthen financials.
Integra Director of National Sales for LTC Jim McDonald definitely sees long-term care, institutional, and combo-shop pharmacies across the United States looking for new opportunities to expand revenue and provide better care for their patients. “With reimbursement rates decreasing, increasing competition, and other industry pressures,” says McDonald, “it is difficult to grow revenue by purely dispensing prescriptions.” But with the pharmacist’s role evolving and provider status continually expanding, McDonald is optimistic that patients are more and more looking at the clinical pharmacist as an integral part of their healthcare team.
Of course, it’s realistic to assume that 2021 will not be the year when insurers and PBMs fully recognize the contribution of pharmacists and begin to reimburse them accordingly for their professional services. PharmSaver CIO Phil Idziak believes that pharmacies will want to look to bolster their finances by using analytics technology that assists with purchasing and product selection to ensure the best margins.
And pharmacies will have to look for growth and revenue in channels other than prescription dispensing, according to QS/1 Product Manager, NRx/PrimeCare/SharpRx, Randy Burnett and Senior Director, Next Generation Pharmacy Systems, Rich Muller. “These opportunities for clinical services fall under medical coverage,” notes Burnett, “so pharmacies need a partner who will navigate the complexities and provide claim reimbursements faster than ever.”
A sample of pharmacies responding to the survey were generally in agreement. Top keywords for them were COVID-19 response tools such as telehealth and delivery, curbside, or drive-thru window pickup, and a focus on clinical services with a need for integrated and provider-controlled networks such as CPESN.
Clinical Services and Patient Care
When it comes to building out new solutions and developing new interfaces, pharmacy system vendors have their eye on a variety of areas in which they feel they can add value to the pharmacy.
The top choices for areas of greater importance in 2021 were clinical services and patient care. Technology vendors will be looking to support expanded patient care offerings, for example, through point-of-care testing, vaccinations, and vitamin and supplement recommendations. Retail Management Solutions CEO Brad Jones foresees a positive impact on both patient care and revenue, from these last items. Providing recommendations at the point of sale to counteract prescription-induced nutrient depletions is something that both expands the service level a pharmacy provides and also increases sales of front-end items with strong margins. “Pharmacies must take a holistic approach to patient care in 2021 and beyond,” says Jones.
The front end is top of mind for BestRx Pharmacy Software Director of Sales and Marketing Stephen Barnes as well. He calls the front end one of the most overlooked areas of opportunity and growth for independent pharmacy. “The easiest way to make up for lost profit in the pharmacy department,” says Barnes, “is to help create organic growth for over-the-counter products. OTC products offer potential for high profit margin, so is it any wonder the big-box chains continue to focus a great majority of their marketing dollars and loyalty programs on the front end?”
Immunizations are critical to pharmacy’s evolving role as a care provider as well. Technology is supporting workflows that present immunization opportunities to pharmacy staff based on patient profiles, so that the staff can recommend the right immunizations to the right patients at the right time. Central to these workflows is a connection between pharmacy systems and state immunization registries, which can tell pharmacies whether a patient needs a specific immunization. And of course, once the shot is given, pharmacies can then easily comply with regulations for reporting. All of this will become even more critical once a COVID-19 vaccine is available, an eventuality for which community pharmacies are busy preparing.
Personalized Patient Care
There should also be a trend toward pharmacies providing more personalized patient care, whether that’s through targeted patient communications programs, customized packaging offerings designed to improve adherence, or workflows that support touchless interactions, at least until the COVID-19 pandemic is controlled.
Plan on seeing a strong trend around technology that can help pharmacies make the pivot to a value-based model, for example, support for billing for services as a provider and aggregating data in order to prove value and, in turn, create more revenue based on services.
PioneerRx Marketing Director Marsha Bivins sees a need in 2021 for pharmacy systems that support these opportunities for offering enhanced clinical services. “Systems that aid in care planning and providing proper documentation for reimbursements afford pharmacies with the right technology the chance to completely transform their position in healthcare,” says Bivins.
Catching these industry trends around patient care-focused models will require an agile response from technology vendors, but also a willingness on the part of pharmacies to be forward-thinking and ready to adopt new technology. For those pharmacies ready to pivot to a new model, one respondent points out that there is the opportunity to build public trust in pharmacy-based care and to develop a habit among consumers of using the local pharmacy as a healthcare resource, beyond just filling scripts.
As Transaction Data Systems Regional Sales Manager Beth Perry notes, “Pharmacy is moving to become a critical point of contact in the patients’ healthcare team, as the patient will visit the pharmacy more often than prescribers.”
CPESN, in particular, should be of central importance for community pharmacies as they work to make clinically integrated and provider-controlled pharmacy networks the standard. The focus in 2021 will need to be on expanding these networks with more high-performance pharmacy members and integrating with physician networks to improve patient care, and engaging in consistent and purposeful marketing outreach to payers and prescribers to ensure that they understand the role CPESN network pharmacies can play in delivering healthcare. You can read more about the trends in state CPESN networks, and learn about six things every pharmacist should know about CPESN in a two-part series of articles published in the July/August and September/October 2020 issues of ComputerTalk.
Community Pharmacy Perspective
The 2020 NCPA Digest, released by the National Community Pharmacists Association and sponsored by Cardinal Health, highlights the range of services offered among independent pharmacies — from emerging models of enhanced services such as collaborative practice agreement, transitions of care programs, and pharmacy-based clinical care, to what are by now more traditional pharmacy services such as MTM (medication therapy management), immunizations, and a variety of wellness programs such as those focused on diabetes, smoking cessation, and asthma. The NCPA Digest delves further into the area of point-of-care testing, which is a rapidly expanding opportunity for pharmacies. Key areas of testing cited in the digest include strep, cholesterol, and hemoglobin A1c. NCPA also reports that pharmacies positioning themselves for the future are working to obtain the proper certification to provide point-of-care testing for COVID-19.
Pharmacies will need to be sure that they have the right technology systems to run point-of-care testing programs, and that they are not taking a step backward by trying to run this part of pharmacy operations with pen and paper.
Big Data, Big Impact
ScriptPro also recommends keeping an eye out in 2021 for a merging of technological advancements such as algorithmic approaches to problem solving, intelligent automation, and data aggregation and analytics with a growing clinical focus, including areas such as disease/drug management, expanded practice capabilities, testing, and vaccination expansion.
It’s likely that artificial intelligence (AI) will play an increasingly important role here, as the availability of on-demand computing power from Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and other cloud providers allows vendors to bring the full benefits of machine learning to bear on pharmacy data. Tremendous amounts of data flow through pharmacy systems, and this is invaluable for training AI algorithms to support the complex decision-making processes that require in-depth knowledge of patients and their medication profiles, or help pharmacies more quickly and efficiently navigate tasks such as purchasing or claims management. 2021 should see powerful decision support and workflow streamlining tools available from those technology vendors that are staying on the cutting edge of AI. You can read more about how AI may play out in pharmacy in 2021 in our interview with American Society of Consultant Pharmacists (ASCP) CEO Chad Worz.
Automating for Efficiency and Improved Finances
While 2021 should see pharmacies making big strides in patient care and clinical services, success in these areas will be based in part on improving efficiency at the pharmacy, noted several of the respondents. This means looking to automate processes and redirect staff and time spent toward patient care activities.
The goal is to streamline all processes and eliminate as many manual processes as possible, notes Datascan President Kevin Minassian. He sees a real need for technology that frees up time to find new profit centers, spend time with customers, and build relationships with local doctors and long-term care (LTC) facilities.
Tightly integrated technology solutions will be critical for this, as will the support and expertise to make sure that the solutions are deployed successfully and used consistently.
IND Consulting Director of Business Development Amber Murray confirms that there will be a continuing effort at IND to help pharmacies manage their backend workflow, which will in turn allow them to be more efficient and to focus on their patients and LTC facilities.
And one idea that is not necessarily new, but worth revisiting in the current environment, is the idea of workload balancing and distributing functions across remote locations. This plays into the pandemic-induced trend to remote work, but also the fundamental need for pharmacies to smooth the demand on resources and ensure that all available pharmacy staff are working steadily, without disruptive bottlenecks.
Other areas of increased importance, and where efficiency will be paramount in 2021, include purchasing and inventory management and front-end management, for example, merchandising, customer loyalty, and the most effective use of point-of-sale systems overall.
Success in 2021
2021 shows no signs of being an easier year to navigate than 2020. It looks as if success will come for pharmacies that are harnessing the right technology, building the right practice models, and engaging with their peers to prove their value. CT