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10 technology innovations changing pharmacy

In the highly personal profession of pharmacy, where onsite interactions and one-to-one consultations are essential to a successful practice, technology has increasingly become as fundamental to the workflow as vials and prescription bags.

“These technologies form an ecosystem in pharmacy, with one flowing into the other,” says Ashwin Juneja, an Ottawa-based relief pharmacist and pharmacy consultant. “Their functions fall into two key categories: the first are those technologies that free up our time in our daily tasks, and the second are those that allow us to be more progressive in our profession, to go that extra mile for our patients.”

In recent years, a number of technologies have emerged as game-changers for pharmacy professionals. Here’s our roundup of the top 10 technology innovations in pharmacy.

1. E-prescribing

What pharmacist hasn’t struggled with the hard-to-decipher prescription that a doctor has scribbled hastily? How often have you filled a prescription, only to get a cancellation by fax a few hours later?

The rollout of digital prescribing—in particular Canada’s PrescribeIT platform—continues to make life easier for pharmacists, while improving medication accuracy and safety for patients.

As per the latest available numbers from PrescribeIT, close to 6,000 Canadian pharmacies and more than 8,400 prescribers were enrolled in the system by the end of 2021.

2. Scheduling and patient care platforms

During the COVID-19 vaccination push, pharmacies in many provinces had to make an instant transition, becoming “vaccination central” for their communities. That rush demand for in-pharmacy vaccination—at a time when social distancing and staffing shortages necessitated control measures—lit a fire under the long-simmering need to move pharmacy care towards an appointment-based model.

Enter comprehensive patient care platforms such as MedMe, MedEssist, Pomelo Health and Kroll, which are like customer relationship management systems on steroids, designed specifically for pharmacies. These integrated platforms typically come with a wide range of functions, such as appointment scheduler, phone and video telehealth, automated documentation, online payments, and patient reminders and alerts.

Some also have built-in clinical tools such as drug interaction checkers and compounding formulas.

“A number of these platforms have been around for some time, but they’ve really come into the spotlight in the last couple of years,” says Juneja. “As we go into the future, these patient care platforms will become even more relevant.”

3. Pharmacoeconomics

Individualized medicine—where therapies are customized not only according to a condition but based on each patient’s genetic makeup—is the holy grail of healthcare. In pharmacy, drug-gene testing or pharmacogenomics uses genetic analysis to determine if a medication could be an effective treatment, and also to identify potential side effects specific to each patient.

Juneja, pharmacist leader and medical science liaison at Inagene Diagnostics Inc.—a Torontobased genetic research and diagnostics company that provides pharmacogenomics test kits to pharmacies—says he considers the technology critical to preventing adverse effects and ensuring patients are taking the medications that will have the highest likelihood of success.

“Patients and their healthcare providers waste a lot of time going through cycles of trial-and-error to see which drug will work,” says Juneja. “Imagine how much time, not to mention money, you could save by getting it right the first time around.

4. Automation and robotics for sorting, packaging and dispensing

From sorting and pill counting to adherence packaging and dispensing, automation and robotics technology can streamline virtually every stage in the pharmacy workflow to save time, reduce errors and prevent narcotics theft.

Wayne Caverly, founder and president of Caverly Consulting Group in St. Lazare, Que., cites RxSafe— made in Vista, California—as one example of robotic platforms that eliminate manual labour from many of the day-to-day activities that take place in pharmacies.

“So much of a pharmacy’s resources and time are taken up with dispensing and inventory management—tasks that can easily be automated with robotics,” he says. “One of the big barriers is cost, which is why it’s usually the high-volume stores that adopt them, but I would argue that some of these automation technologies can also make sense in lower-volume settings. They can help with labour shortages and you can finance them over time.”

5. Remote patient monitoring

Innovations that enable virtual tracking of patients’ drug use and health indicators have made a big difference for patients, their doctors and pharmacists, says Alexandre Chagnon, a pharmacist and health technology entrepreneur in Quebec whose latest venture is an artificial intelligence-powered patient resource platform called Ask Your Pro.

As examples of these remote patient monitoring technologies, Chagnon highlights Abbott Laboratories’ FreeStyle Libre glucose monitoring systems and the digital inhalers from Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., which monitor the flow of medication going through the dispensers.

“So we know if patients are inhaling too much or if maybe they need a bit of coaching about how to inhale properly,” says Chagnon. “This helps us support the patient better and improve their health outcomes.”

Remote monitoring can also contribute to a pharmacist’s revenue from clinical services. In Quebec, for one, pharmacists can bill the public health insurer for following a patient using certain remote monitoring devices, says Chagnon.

6. Remote medication verification

Pharmacists who own more than one location often find the pace of their workflows varies from one site to another, and that their busy periods are not consistent across locations. Caverly says owners can optimize their pharmacists’ time by adopting technology that allows them to verify prescriptions remotely.

“Why shouldn’t you be verifying for the busy pharmacy from the slower pharmacy?” he asked. “A pharmacist in the slower pharmacy should have the ability to look at images on a computer screen– showing prescriptions at the busy pharmacy–and be able to say ‘okay, that’s approved.’”

McKesson’s Propel Rx pharmacy is among the latest generation of pharmacy software that allows for remote pharmacy access, said Caverly. He also points to other technologies, such as digital image analysis, that aid with the verification process by automatically checking and flagging issues.

Caverly notes that remote medication verification has been in use for some time in certain settings, including the U.S. Navy, which created its own system because it had hundreds of ships but only a handful of pharmacies at sea. Remote verification made it possible to hand out prescription medications on ships after they’ve been reviewed and approved by a pharmacist on another ship, says Caverly.

7. Technology for controlled drugs

Software that controls and manages dispensing and usage of controlled drugs provide critical tools for pharmacists, says Caverly. One such innovation, called MethaMeasure, uses biometric technology such as facial recognition to verify the identity of patients coming in for methadone and other controlled drugs. The system measures the dosage and automatically updates the pharmacy’s list of controlled drugs that have been dispensed.

The same company that developed MethaMeasure has another product, called CDRx, that includes a register for controlled drugs along with other functionalities—such as a dispensing error log— designed to reduce errors and give pharmacists greater control over controlled medications.

8. Automated storage and retrieval lockers 

If you like black-and-white movies you might have seen those cafeteria automats with compartments that dispensed sandwiches and pies. Today, automated locker technologies provide a secure way for patients to retrieve their prescription medications after pharmacy hours, or even from a non-pharmacy location such as an office tower.

“They’re like a PenguinPickup for pills,” says Chagnon. “These would be most useful not as a means to connect with pharmacy but more to provide a secure and convenient way for a pharmacy to deliver prescriptions to multiple customers in one location.”

How do these lockers work? With one particular product—the ServiLocker from Winnipeg-based Manrex Ltd.—prescriptions are scanned and loaded into a temperature-controlled locker with 162 separate compartments secured by robotically powered doors. To retrieve their medications, patients unlock the door by entering a code provided by their pharmacist into a control panel.

ServiLocker is available in a two-sided version that can be installed through a wall, with one panel inside the pharmacy for loading and the other panel outside the pharmacy for retrievals.

“You can also just use the locker inside the pharmacy, so that customers can walk in and pick up their prescription if they don’t need to talk to the pharmacist,” says Caverly.

9. Personal automated medication management

Designed for at-home use, personal automated medication management technologies play a critical role in adherence and compliance, says Caverly.

The next-generation models do more than dispense medication. A device called Spencer, for example, can be programmed to “talk” to patients to tell them it’s time for their meds.

“And if you don’t take your medication it will contact someone—a family member or the pharmacy—to alert them,” Caverly explains. “Spencer also has a screen on it so patients can book a video call with their pharmacist right on the device. It’s a great way to make sure patients are being compliant, and it’s also being used a lot in the United States by pharmaceutical companies evaluating their medications.

10. Digital billing binders, formularies and clinical guides

The pandemic saw many innovations invented and developed by pharmacy professionals who saw the many inefficiencies in their workflow and decided to come up with a solution. Among these innovations is Rx Billing Genie, an app that allows for quick searches of insurance rejection codes and then generates the most suitable interventions.

Since its launch in 2021, Rx Billing Genie has quickly gained adoption across Canada, thanks to a partnership with the Canadian Pharmacists Association.

Last year, pharmacist Chris Obi “appified” the Ontario drug formulary through his technology company, RxCoverage Canada. Since then, Obi has been working to digitize all of the country’s provincial and territorial formularies. The apps, so far, are available at no cost to users.

And in 2022, the Canadian Pharmacists Association announced that after 62 years, its venerable Compendium of Pharmaceuticals and Specialties (CPS) was going completely online. The CPS will now be available only as an app, along with many of the association’s other drug and practice resources. Another healthcare resource that’s been turned into an app is the Clinical Guide to Probiotic Products Available in Canada. Published originally in 2008 as a book or PDF file, the guide’s formats have since been expanded to include a website and app. The latter, which is available for both iPhone and Android, is free to download.