Hey, don’t forget about the technology in the central pharmacy

The February 1, 2011 issue of the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy (AJHP) has an interesting article on page 202 in a section called Management Consultation. The article is titled “Redesigning the workflow of central pharmacy operations”1. I’d like to have everyone read this article, but unfortunately access requires a ASHP membership or an AHJP subscription.

The article discusses the process involved in redesigning the workflow within an acute care central pharmacy, but fails to mention the use of technology.

So let’s break it down a bit, shall we?
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Do smaller hospitals get the shaft when it comes to automation and technology?

I’ve worked in several acute care hospitals during my career, from the small one horse operation that did little more than care for minor inconveniences, to larger, multi-pharmacy facilities that handled everything from pneumonia to severe trauma. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog each one of those pharmacies offered a slightly different way of doing things. Granted, some were variations on a similar approach, but they were all different.

However, one trend I’ve discovered across the range of facilities is that the smaller the hospital, the less automation and technology the pharmacy has. Why? It’s quite simple. Automation and technology is expensive. It’s also time consuming to plan for, implement and maintain. Of course another argument is that smaller hospitals - and therefore smaller pharmacies – need fewer technological advances. That doesn’t make much sense to me. I agree that a small 50 bed hospital pharmacy may not need a giant robot to fill their med carts, but they can certainly benefit from clinical decision support, pharmacy surveillance software, bar code medication administration (BCMA), computerized provider order entry (CPOE), automated dispensing cabinets (ADCs), smartpumps, mobile devices, so on and so forth. The problem is that much of this technology is expensive and takes a sizable chunk out of smaller budgets.
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Time to accept pharmacy robotics as our friend and ally

As the word “robot” passes its 90th birthday1 – introduced by Karel Capek in his play R.U.R. (Tossums’s Universal Robots) in January 1921 – it’s become obvious that robotics has not only captured the imagination of geeks everywhere, but has become a point of interest in many industries including healthcare.

Late last year ASHP began pushing the idea of a new pharmacy practice model, PPMI. The movement was a hot topic for a while, but seems to have lost a lot of steam recently – “Hence the name: movement. It moves a certain distance, then it stops, you see? A revolution gets its name by always coming back around in your face” (Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege 1992) – Anyway, when the PPMI movement was still going strong many important people in the pharmacy world struggled with the best way to approach a new pharmacy practice model. Many believe, and rightly so, that the best way for pharmacists to reinvent themselves is to become the cornerstone of a more robust patient care model. After careful consideration I believe the best hope for developing such as model will be to rely heavily on pharmacy robotics to handle much of the repetitive dispensing duties now handled by pharmacist on a day to day bases. You know, free up the pharmacists. It’s not a new concept, but one that seems to escape us.

Obviously it will take some time to develop robotics to the point where it will be effective in such a system, and it certainly won’t be cheap, and pharmacists will have to fight with state boards of  pharmacy to accept it, and pharmacy administrators will have to work closely with their hospitals to develop such a systems, and someone’s going to have to be brave enough to step up to the plate and get stated, and so on and so forth. In other words it’s going to be hard and it won’t happen overnight.

Who’s up for a little project? For now let’s just take a quick look at some of the things that lead me to believe robotics is worth another look as a potential solution.

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Going cartless

I spent some time recently speaking with the director of pharmacy (DOP) from a large acute care facility about operations and various dispensing models. In this particular instance, the hospital utilizes a cartfill model, decentralized pharmacists in satellites to handle first doses, batched IV’s and automated dispensing cabinets for pain meds and other “PRN” medications.

At one point the conversation drifted toward a discussion of using a cartless dispensing model. The DOP wasn’t a fan. The reason cited was a fear that utilizing automated dispensing cabinets in a cartless model would create a workflow logjam in the pharmacy as the entire day would be dedicated to “massive ADC [automated dispensing cabinet] fills”. I understand the thought process, but have found through experience that this simply isn’t true. In a well-constructed workflow a cartless model is quite efficient.
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Who’s to blame for the lack of advancement in pharmacy automation and technology?

Without question there is a lack of advanced automation and technology in the acute care pharmacy setting. Spend some time in several acute care pharmacies if you don’t believe me. There’s clearly a need for it, but it’s just not being used.

I am a fan of automation and technology in any setting, but especially in the acute care pharmacy. I believe that the continued use, development and advancement of pharmacy technology should be a key component of any plan to change the current pharmacy practice model. Unfortunately, the situation is problematic because current pharmacy technology is either poorly designed for the needs of the pharmacy or the pharmacy in which it is used has a poorly designed workflow that doesn’t take advantage of it. Why is that? Who’s to blame; someone, anyone, no one? Valid questions.
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Why automated medication kiosks could be good for pharmacy practice

I followed a little banter on Twitter this weekend regarding the use of automated dispensing kiosks to dispense medications to patients instead of using a physical pharmacy. There are many pharmacists out there that believe the use of automated medication dispensing in the outpatient arena is bad practice and separates patients from their pharmacists. I don’t share their sentiment. I’ve blogged about these devices before, here and here, and believe they could be used to improve the pharmacist-patient interaction. I actually had the opportunity to watch an InstyMeds Prescription Medication Dispenser in action under a physician dispensing model late last year and thought it was well done.

It is unclear to me why pharmacists fear these machines, but it reminds me of the fear surrounding automated dispensing cabinets during their inception back in the day.  Now they’re an integral part of acute care pharmacy practice. Perhaps pharmacists believe that patients won’t get the necessary consultation and instruction that they would had they visited their local retail pharmacy. As one that has worked in a retail pharmacy environment, albeit briefly, I don’t buy into that belief. Under the right set of circumstances, and with thoughtful implementation, kiosks could free up pharmacists to spend more time with patients in emergency departments and urgent care clinics across the country. After all, don’t pharmacists argue for more clinical face time with patients and less association with the physical medication dispensing process? That’s what I’ve been hearing from pharmacists for years.

I would argue that placing kiosks in certain locations could improve medication therapy management and patient compliance. The odds of a mother with a tired, cranky, ill child going out of her way to visit a local retail pharmacy at midnight is much lower than grabbing a prescription at an automated dispensing machine in the urgent care clinic following the child’s exam. It certainly couldn’t hurt. Now throw in a consultation from the pharmacist prior to going to the medication kiosk and you have a winning combination.

Kiosks certainly wouldn’t fit every situation, but there is certainly room in the pharmacy practice model for their thoughtful use. Think about it.

Unforeseen barrier to tech-check-tech endeavor

I’ve been on a mission, however small it may be, to get pharmacy technicians more involved in the operational aspect of acute care pharmacy. And by more involved I mean using a tech-check-tech model to free pharmacists up for more patient related clinical activities. I’ve posted my thoughts on the use of tech-check-tech before.

The reason for rehashing the issue is due to a conversation I had with a colleague last week. This particular colleague and I were having a light hearted discussion over the possibility of using a tech-check-tech model with automated packagers like those I described in a post earlier this week.
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Automated unit-dose packagers for acute care pharmacy

State of Pharmacy Automation. Pharm Purch Prod. 2010; 8

I was doing a little Sunday morning reading and came across an interesting set of slides at the Pharmacy Purchasing & Products (PPP) website  (registration required to access the slides). I haven’t spent much time reading PPP Magazine, but I should because they always seem to have something good about pharmacy automation and technology in just about every issue.

Anyway, I’ve been looking at various automated packaging machines lately and thought the information at the PPP website was rather timely. According to information found at the site “After a slight dip in the number of facilities packaging medications in bar coded unit dose in 2009, this process realized a significant rebound in 2010. Nearly three quarters of all facilities now have such an operation in place. Hospitals taking advantage of the increased data capacity offered by two-dimensional bar codes also bounced back this year. In conjunction with these improving adoption rates, pharmacy directors are also reporting rising satisfaction rates with their operations. Despite a staunch minority that sees no need for a unit dose packaging operation, the vast majority of those without such a system plan to implement one shortly.” The graph in this post is from the PPP slide deck and shows the percentage of facilities using bar-code unit dosed packaging for medications over the past several years. This comes as no surprise when you consider the relative inexpensive nature of this technology when compared to other pharmacy automation, the ease of which it can be implemented and the push for BPOC in healthcare. Call it a perfect storm.
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It may be time to consider robotic IV preparation at the bedside

Hospitals make a lot of intravenous (IV) preparations. That makes sense when you consider that most people admitted to the hospital are there because their acute illness requires more care than can be administered at home; not always, but in most cases. This is especially true for patients in the intensive care unit, i.e. the ICU.

A fair number of the medications used in the ICU are prepared on demand for a host of reasons including stability, differences in concentration, difficulty in scheduling secondary to rate variability, etc. Any pharmacist or nurse reading this will understand what I’m talking about. Example medications that fall into this category include drips like norepinephrine, epinephrine, phenylephrine, amiodarone and nitroprusside.

Last year I mused about using devices on the nursing stations designed to package oral solids on demand at the point of care. I still like the idea for several reasons, all of which can be found in the original post.  Based on currently available technology the same concept could be applied to preparation of IV products at the bedside. Robotic IV preparation has come a long way and these devices could be used at the point of care to make a nurses, and patient’s, life a whole lot easier. The use of robotic IV preparation at the bedside could reduce wait times for nurses and lesson the workload on pharmacy.
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Participating in the ASHP Summer Meeting from afar #ashpsm10

The inability to physically be in Tampa, FL shouldn’t stop someone from participating in the ASHP Summer Meeting. Technology doesn’t care that I’m 2700 miles away or that I’m sitting in my home in my bunny slippers with Diet Pepsi in hand. With a webcam and speaker phone I was able to join a user group discussion held by Talyst.
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