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Robots bring pharmacists and patients together

IMG_9754.JPGStephanie Grant, PharmD, pharmacist in charge at Miller Drug Riverside, isn’t spending as much time filling prescriptions as she used to—and that’s good news. The small pharmacy, nestled in the Webber Building at Eastern Maine Medical Center, can receive more than 4,000 prescriptions per month. In November alone, Miller Drug filled nearly 40,000 prescriptions across its five retail pharmacies, mail order facility, specialty pharmacy, and contracted business with long-term care facilities. “From opening at eight o’clock in the morning, we’d have buckets of orders waiting for us and our staff wanting to provide the best customer service possible. The environment was definitely tense for us behind the counter.”

Pharmacists like Stephanie would struggle to balance their time between filling prescriptions and finding time to provide support services, like counseling patients on medications. Miller Drug saw an opportunity to improve the customer experience and joined forces with McKesson, a national medical supply and pharmaceutical distribution company, in February of this year. Together, they created a centralized pharmacy prescription fulfillment facility (Central Fill) to absorb many of the tasks Stephanie and other pharmacy staff were once spending precious time doing. “Centralizing and automating our fill service allows us to be more efficient and cost effective, while also freeing up our pharmacists to spend more time counseling patients and assisting with other customer service needs,” explained Miller Drug chief operating officer, Vincent Mainella.

Miller Drug offers several services and clinical programs including chronic disease management classes, medication therapy management, wellness assessments, and assistance to customers with selecting the best Medicare plan based on needs. Pharmacies have become a vital part of a patient’s overall care team. “The role of a pharmacy is an evolving landscape. As pharmacists and pharmacy technicians become more involved in patient care, automation systems can complete the mechanical tasks of our job,” Stephanie explained.

Miller-girls.jpgThis industry-leading Central Fill facility is located in a nondescript warehouse just off a busy main road in Brewer. It’s equipped with automation technology used to assemble, verify, and package patient-ready medications. Sophisticated robots, with help and oversight from Central Fill staff and two Miller Drug pharmacists, automatically fill thousands of orders of pills, inhalers, insulin, and more, every day. Those orders are then seamlessly delivered back to the patients with incredible speed and precision.

Kara Smith, Miller Drug operations manager, saw the shift in its pharmacies’ work atmosphere after Central Fill was put in place. “It’s like night and day. Pharmacy staff are more relaxed, they have more time to interact with the patients. The positive effect of Central Fill is just so multifaceted. It’s been really helpful to patients.”

Patients never see the facility, but Riley Stewart, PharmD, pharmacist in charge at Miller Drug Central Fill, is brimming with passion for “her patients.” At the facility, deep blue plastic totes roll single file along a conveyor belt waiting to be filled by the robotic dispensary or by employees who hand pick less common medications. “Each tote is embedded with a microchip that is assigned to a single patient and their specific order. The process is designed with patient safety and accuracy as the highest priority,” explained Riley. That microchip tells the complete story of the patients and their prescription medications—who they are and what they need—and ensures the right medicine is filled for the right patient through layers of security checks with more than 99.9 percent accuracy.  

“We want our patients to know that it’s still Miller Drug taking care of them,” emphasized Riley who started working at the company more than 10 years ago as a customer service clerk. Between the Central Fill operations and Miller Drug's retail pharmacies, 100 percent of prescription orders are filled by local, Maine people.“We also think medical providers will be impressed to know how well their patients are being taken care of—much better than at a large retail chain pharmacy.”

Finding opportunities for cost efficient processes like Central Fill is also an important piece of this story. Offerings like smoking cessation and diabetes education are often denied for payment by patients’ insurances. However, the company continues to offer them as it sees the value these programs bring to patients. Kayla Hines, Miller Drug third party administrator, points out that the services provided by Miller Drug, even those that go unpaid, are good for the entire EMHS system. “It’s a win-win for our patients and our hospitals,” Kayla explained. “Our ability to offer preventive and disease management education is critical to our member hospitals. It plays into a team effort to ensure patients stay out of the hospital, or avoid readmission to the hospital after they are discharged.”

Stephanie and her team at Miller Drug Riverside will no doubt be as busy as ever, but now she can spend more time on the other side of the counter helping patients. “Since the implementation of our Central Fill location, my fellow pharmacists and I have been able to focus on patient care and quality improvement projects. We spend more time with patients during medication counseling sessions as well as out in the front store helping them find the correct over-the-counter solutions. I truly see Central Fill as our way toward expanding the role of the community pharmacy.”