EXCLUSIVE PHARMACY TECHNOLOGY CONTENT
By Will Lockwood
Pharmacies generate tremendous amounts of data every day. From behind the pharmacy counter to the point-of-sale register, from wholesalers to loyalty programs, there’s a lot a pharmacy can learn about its operations with access to data and the right tools. In this interview with ComputerTalk senior editor Will Lockwood, PDX’s Louis Martinez describes the efforts that this pharmacy technology company has been making to provide the right data management and analysis platform to clients and takes a look at where data may be headed next.
CT: Louis, let’s start with some background. What’s been driving developments in pharmacy data management and analysis at PDX?
Louis Martinez: For the past five or six years our customers have really been pushing us to open up our backend, our database systems, and allow them to take a peek into that data. We were traditionally hesitant to expose our data model and all the information we’re collecting within our pharmacy system and how it is used. However, the demand never went away. Our customers continued to push and insist they needed better access to data for patient care and also for operational improvements. They were looking to improve across the board, and the best way to do that, as we all know, is to look for trends, find out where your outliers are, and give those areas attention. So we began to lay out a path at that point and began using our annual User Forum as a place to talk about how we’d build the strategy for the many different types of operators that are in our user base. We serve about 65 different chains that operate in many different ways. They range from Fortune 50 companies to a chain of five or six stores. And then there are numerous independents.
CT: How has this strategy developed?
Martinez: At the beginning our strategy was to try to build a single solution that would work for everyone. But it soon became evident that not everyone was going to have the deep pockets that it would take to buy into a single solution. So about three years ago we started a different approach where we would open up the databases on the appropriate platforms enough so that customers could consume the data as they needed. We would become a provider of data, as well as a professional services provider for ways to make that data useful within a pharmacy organization.
CT: So users with existing tools for consuming data could use them, and those without would have an option, too?
Martinez: Right. So instead of having to pick one business intelligence platform to integrate well with or to find a way to create viable interfaces with the wide array of business intelligence platforms out there — such as IBM, BI Solutions, Microstrategy, or WebFocus — we chose to provide the data to our customers and let them and let them choose the platform. This meant that we could then also focus on providing our smaller customers with a business intelligence platform that is affordable and meaningful both for them and for us.
CT: What are some of the current operational needs that access to data supports?
Martinez: One thing that’s a constant feature of the pharmacy landscape is decreasing margins. It seems like every day there’s a group that wants to audit pharmacy a little more closely, and so there’s money being spent on not just filling prescriptions and patient care, but on streamlining operations and protecting revenue from this ongoing pressure. There’s a lot of information in our systems that can point to potential efficiencies in the different areas of the application where people spend time, whether it be data entry, working refills, or working third-party exceptions. For a simple example, the data shows how much time is being spent in those various areas. Our customers can run their own reports to see if they have issues with employees or training, or even application issues where they think we might be able to streamline a particular business event for them. This lets them see where they can try to control their spend on the HR aspect of the dispensing process. They may even see ways that the pharmacy can be better physically arranged to help things flow through more quickly and take care of more patients. That’s really the biggest thing: operational efficiencies.
CT: So a technology-driven workflow format, where you are recording who is taking what action and when, is a significant source of the data that improves operations?
Martinez: Exactly, and that calls to mind another example that goes along with workflow, which are quality checks that you can glean from the data. For example, you can see exactly how much time was spent on DUR. If the pharmacist blows through this in one second, then that could be a red flag that there isn’t the proper attention being given to patient care. Overall, pharmacies are finding that, when they can see the data and the trends, then they can go in and assess the overall practice of their workflow based on its measured impact. They can make data-based decisions that will help create protocols that provide the best throughput, while also maintaining the highest patient care standards. Of course, there’s an operational advantage and a boost to margin if you can work more patients through your queue, but it has to be done according to standards.
CT: What are some nontraditional uses you are seeing for data, things that pharmacies would be interested to hear are being done?
Martinez: What we’re hearing a lot about right now are data-driven efforts centered around the patient. A lot of our customers are looking for ways to really engage with the patient. So they want access to certain demographic details, which are a focus of traditional data mining, but what they are really looking for is to tie that patient’s pharmacy experience to other in-store experiences. This is particularly true for major retailer and grocery store chains. They are looking to tie in rewards cards to the patient profile, for example, and then they can look at a master database of shopping patterns. This will let them look for ways to reach out to patients in different ways and understand better how patients are making use of the whole store, not just the pharmacy.
There’s also an interest in using the patient record data to look out for issues that may be developing for a patient. Pharmacists can have the chance to head an issue off and recommend a change to the doctor or that the patient check in with the doctor.
And then we’re also seeing customers interested in looking for their top patients, the ones who come in the most frequently or have the most extensive relationship with the pharmacy. Then they can make a special effort with these patients to help make sure they are the only pharmacy the patients want to visit.
CT: What’s the patient response when they start to recognize how much data some pharmacy operations may be collecting about them? It might make some people a little nervous.
Martinez: There’s a generation gap in terms of what’s considered acceptable. And then it can depend on the conditions a patient has, too. There will be people who prefer more privacy. One thing that we offer to give the patient more control is to opt out of some of these programs. For example, our system allows for a shared patient profile across a chain’s pharmacy locations, whether that’s across town or across the country. The benefit of this is seamless service for the patient, without a need to call another pharmacy location or even the doctor to track down details of a prescription. But a patient can opt out of this, if it makes him or her uncomfortable.
But really, we haven’t seen a significant number of people opting out. We have only had a very small fraction of people take themselves out of the common patient profile, for example. People are only going to become more comfortable with having information available across a chain, particularly when they trust the chain and the pharmacists. Of course, they can’t end up feeling that their data is being used for the wrong purposes. But barring that, over time people are only going to be more comfortable with a broad range of appropriate uses of data about them.
And of course, analytics and data have a big impact on public health issues — flu or West Nile for example — and there’s real potential being seen for gaining efficiency and lowering costs for the healthcare system overall.
CT: So, finally, how does a smaller pharmacy player make sure that it can compete in a market being driven by big data?
Martinez: If you look at the landscape, the major retailers are going to have an advantage here because of the amount of dollars they can spend on analytics for pharmacy and across their enterprises. Smaller players, as far as we’ve seen, are going to rely on partners. This is something we are trying to address. For instance, we’ve put together a business intelligence team that bring insights to our customers about best practices and the top must-knows. This team can then help pharmacies build the programs that will allow them to grab the data they need and ultimately give them the ability to compete more effectively with the larger retailers. One thing we offer is a starter kit that will help a customer collect and use the key information that will make them a better operator. And there’s a need for this. Many pharmacies spend so much time just keeping up that they haven’t had the resources or time to apply to building that back-office analytical ability that you see at the biggest operators.
CT: So to succeed in a big data world, you need to look for vendors who make good partners?
Martinez: That’s right. We’ve found that a partnership approach has been the most effective way for us to support our customers and for our customers, in turn, to run their business successfully and provide care for their communities. Our customers trust that we are protecting their data, and we are committed to doing so. So much so that we undergo yearly third-party audits to ensure we are handling and protecting the data to a level above and beyond the expectation of all laws and regulations regarding protected patient information. Pharmacy has always been data intensive, but I think we are going to see the significance of the role that data plays grow even larger, so your partnerships must be strong and solid. CT