How COVID-19 Led to Greater Central Pharmacy Automation

Hospital pharmacies are under a lot of pressure thanks to the pandemic.  Pharmacies and their workers were called on to fill hospital gaps in hand sanitizers, disinfectants, and medications.  Hospitals also changed medication use guidelines to better address COVID-19 treatment and investigational drug studies.  At the same time, central pharmacies face increasing costs next to decreasing revenues.  PPE and drug costs rise while elective procedures and new prescriptions are restricted.  The combination of factors puts hospital pharmacies in a dire strait.

When the pandemic isn’t creating new problems for hospital pharmacies, it’s making existing issues worse.  In January 2020, before the pandemic reached America, 75% of pharmacists reported symptoms of burnout.  Thanks to the intense stress workers face in pandemic-era pharmacies, many are leaving the job for greener pastures or early retirement.  As of May 2021, 80% of pharmacies struggled to fill open positions.  The hardest positions to fill are pharmacy tech and front end employee; high stress jobs that pay low relative to other jobs in the profession.  This problem is not exclusive to pharmacies, however.  Right now, healthcare workers of all types are retiring faster than new recruits can be trained.  By 2026, over 6.5 million workers will leave the healthcare professions, but only 2 million new workers will enter it.  Increasing wages and benefits is important, but those measures alone will not reverse the trend. 

Another problem in hospital pharmacies that the pandemic made worse is drug shortages.  From 2017 to 2020, drug shortages were the #1 issue confronting hospital pharmacists.  Yet in 2020, 86% of hospital pharmacists reported that shortages had grown worse thanks to the pandemic.  Over 6 in 10 of hospital pharmacies are currently facing more than 10 drug shortages.  Many of the drugs hospitals are in short supply of are either lifesaving or necessary for surgery, such as dialysis solutions, neuromuscular blockers, or sedatives and anesthetics.  Almost every pharmacy had to make changes to their supply chain, incurring switching costs and piling more duties onto an already hectic work schedule.

Given all the problems the workers in pharmacists have to sort through, it would be nice to have extra help.  Pharmacy automation technologies promise to fill the gap.  There are numerous opportunities for automation in hospital pharmacies.  An automated dispensary could pick nearly 6 times as many medications per hour as a pharmacy technician.  Meanwhile, the average operating cost of a dispensary system is $12 an hour, noticeably less than the average $18 wage received by pharmacy techs.  Inventory tracking technology can ensure medications are distributed on a first in, first out basis to avoid spoilage.  Right now, 16% of hospital pharmacy inventory is wasted.  That is, left to expire on the shelf.  Drug recalls would also be far faster to address with inventory tracking employed.

COVID-19 has changed the top technology initiatives of hospital pharmacists across the nation.  By 2024, the global market for pharmacy automation technology is predicted to reach $8 billion.  Automation is crucial to keeping overwhelmed pharmacies open.