Eight Tips to Improve Productivity in the Community Pharmacy

By Jeff Puetz |

Inefficiency is undesirable in any business sector. But for community pharmacies facing intense competitive pressures and tight margins, operational inefficiency can seriously endanger profitability and viability.

Here are eight ideas community pharmacies can implement to boost productivity, improve efficiency and help businesses run like a well-oiled machine:

1. Measure more – A pharmacy can only manage what it measures. Without data, a community pharmacy won’t be able to tell whether it’s performing better or worse than industry standards, and progress can’t be tracked to see if efforts to improve efficiency are paying off.

For example, there are software programs that give pharmacies the ability to track how many scripts employees dispense on an hourly basis. If this reveals that some employees are much more productive than others, a manager can identify the less efficient team members and work with them to raise their performance.

2. Rationalize the physical workflow – Take the time to step back and look at how quickly a script moves through the pharmacist’s bench. How much do technicians need to move to fill a script? Do the techs have all the materials they need close at hand?

Inefficient pharmacy layouts where technicians have to run halfway across the pharmacy just to pick up a vial can greatly decrease output. By streamlining the workflow, a pharmacy can achieve a significant reduction in the movement needed to fill each script, enabling the technicians to fill scripts more quickly, which translated into labor cost savings for the pharmacy owner.

3. Save time with synchronization – Setting up a med sync (medication synchronization) program can have a major positive impact on productivity and efficiency. Consider that some patients take four or five maintenance medications for chronic conditions. If they can fill all these prescriptions in a single monthly visit, that not only saves the patients the inconvenience of making multiple trips to the pharmacy, it also makes it much simpler and more efficient for the pharmacy to fill all these prescriptions at once.

What’s more, by making demand predictable and dependable, med sync programs make it easier for pharmacy owners to plan their staffing needs far in advance. If a pharmacy knows that Mr. Smith, Ms. Jones and 20 other med sync patients will all be visiting the pharmacy on the 10th of the month for all their refills, then a pharmacy can make sure they have all the labor they need on that day to have the scripts ready and waiting before the patients walk through the door.

4. Research robotics – Robots won’t make sense for every pharmacy. The initial outlay can be steep — a state-of-the-art vial-packing robot could cost close to $200,000.1
Nonetheless, high-volume community pharmacies or independent owners with multiple stores should run the numbers to see if robots make sense. A robotic dispensing system can process up to 150 scripts per hour, automatically print and apply prescription and auxiliary warning labels.2 Some industry robot providers report more than 99 percent uptime and counting accuracy rates.

Robotic dispensing systems are especially effective when they are integrated with med sync programs. A pharmacy can give the machine the details on the patients who will be arriving the next day to get their medications, and the robot will take care of filling and preparing all the scripts for pick up.

5. Designate and delegate – Pharmacy owners who try to do everything themselves can resemble a circus performer spinning a dozen plates. Sure, they can keep the plates going for a while, but get distracted for just a moment, and they’ll have a big mess to clean up.

Delegation is the key to a pharmacy owner’s sanity while simultaneously improving efficiency and productivity. For example, make a trusted staff member an ‘inventory captain’ and put that person in charge of optimizing inventory management. That staff member can develop a process following industry best practices for contacting patients and returning items to stock that have languished too long in the will call bin. Of course, given the sensitivity and costs around keeping track of prescription medicines, a community pharmacy will want to pull those from the bins and have them tracked and shelved as soon as possible.

Similarly, the inventory captain can make sure that daily inventory stocking does not disrupt key pharmacy workflows. There’s no need to disrupt pharmacy operations to stock front-end merchandise as soon as it arrives at the store. A team can wait for a lull in customer activity to stock and get the front-end items onto the shelves.

6. Centralize to capture economies of scale – Owners operating multiple pharmacies can capture efficiencies from centralizing some activities at one location or another. For example, workflow analysis revealed that a pharmacy owner who operated five stores within 40 miles of one another could improve efficiency by filling all the long-term care scripts from one location, then centralizing all his compounding at another store and so forth.

A community pharmacy could theoretically even centralize their inventory ordering system, as long as they made sure they had total visibility to the stock throughout all their stores.

7. Assign specific employees to dedicated tasks – Imagine a pharmacy where a single staff member performs many roles — one minute she is answering the phone, the next she is pulling a prescription, then she is bottling and labeling the script. Later on, she might call for insurance verification or answer an incoming call. Throughout the day, she is getting pulled in different directions, unable to focus or find a rhythm on any single task.

Now consider an alternate workflow where a dedicated staff member answers the phones, another pulls medicines from stock and puts them in bottles, a third staff member labels the bottles and handles insurance verification, while the pharmacist checks the accuracy of the scripts before the patients pick them up.

This can be more challenging at smaller pharmacies where every staff member wears multiple hats, but particularly at larger volume stores (e.g., those filling more than 250 scripts per day), a pharmacy can often improve workflow by giving specific tasks to individual staff members.

With each staff member able to concentrate without interruption on a specific task, the work will proceed faster and more smoothly. As each staff member develops more skill and experience at his or her assigned task, that staff member will become even more efficient and productive.

Bonus tip – If a community pharmacy has enough volume for specialized employees, they should take the time to figure out each staff member’s strengths so they can assign the right people to the right roles. For example, it doesn’t make sense to put an introverted staff member on the cash register. Maybe that person would be happier handling cycle fills or entering orders. When employees are happier with their roles, they’re often more engaged and productive.

8. Take advantage of technology – Even if a pharmacy can’t justify the investment in robotics, there are other ways to get the benefits of technology at a lower cost. Even an IVR (interactive voice response) phone system can yield major productivity benefits.

IVRs offer very good benefits for the price. It’s possible to purchase a fully-loaded IVR system with all the bells and whistles for less than $10,000.3

With an IVR, patients can call and request refills over the phone simply by keying in their prescription numbers. The prescription automatically enters a queue and can be filled without engaging the patient in conversation. The IVR functions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so the patient gets the added convenience of being able to request a refill at any time.

By implementing these sorts of initiatives to improve productivity and efficiency, a pharmacy can lower labor costs. And when employees no longer need to scramble just to fill scripts for the patients walking through the door, they can tackle more proactive responsibilities such as marketing and physician detailing that can help grow a pharmacy’s business and increase revenue.

1. RXSafe. Effects of Robotic Pharmacy Workflow Automation Technology on Retail Pharmacy Safety and Security. 9 April 2014. Accessed 29 June 2017. Available online at http://rxsafe.com/effects-of-robotic-pharmacy-workflow-automation-technology-on-retail-pharmacy-safety-and-security/
2. ScriptPro. SP and CRS Robotic Dispensing Systems. Accessed 29 June 2017. Available online at http://www.scriptpro.com/Products/Robotic-Dispensing-Systems/SP-and-CRS-Robotic-Dispensing-Systems/
3. CostOwl.com. How Much Does Interactive Voice Response Cost? 2017. Available online at http://www.costowl.com/b2b/call-center-ivr-cost.html

About the Author

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Jeff Puetz

Business Coach AmerisourceBergen
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