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Transforming Your Dispensary Through Automation


Big interview: Transforming dispensing through automation

Ryszard Cygan reckons his pharmacy in Spalding, Lincolnshire, is among the most automated in the country. He's invested heavily in robots to protect his dispensing business from threats such as 100-hour competitors and internet pharmacies, by delivering unparalleled convenience to his patients. He tells Dispex about the secrets of his success

1. How and why did you first get into robotics for your pharmacy?

From the day we opened in 1996, at West Elloe Pharmacy, we did things differently. Installing slick continental draws in our first pharmacy refit ahead of the move to original pack dispensing is just one example. And when everyone was solving the problem of a lack of storage with drawer systems, we installed our first ROWA Speedcase robot in 2004. Only the second community pharmacy to do so after Wicker Pharmacy in Sheffield. Seeing it in action there gave me be the bug and the confidence to take the plunge into automation.

2. What impact did the Rowa assembly robot have on the business?

The impact was immense. Firstly, it gave us storage space for the ever-increasing number of ‘original packs’ that were coming to the market and, of course, perfect stock control. We knew exactly how much stock we had, down to the last tablet. Secondly, it changed the workflow through the dispensary. It speeded up the dispensing process whilst at the same time increasing patient safety by reducing the risk of dispensing errors. Thirdly, it allowed the business to cope with a huge growth in prescription numbers safely whilst maintaining the same staff levels. I was so pleased with what the robot had achieved, that I purchased a second robot to operate in tandem. West Elloe Pharmacy was the first community pharmacy to have two dispensing robots, although it was already quite a common sight in hospitals.

3. How did you get involved in the Pharmaself24 collection robot and how has it changed your business?

With my love of automation being well known, I was approached by the distributor of the Rowa machines to look at installing the UK’s first automated 24-hour prescription collection point, the Pharmaself24. These machines were already big in the Netherlands, where interestingly, they have a similar dispensing and remuneration system to that of the UK and the market there was facing similar pressures too.

However, I was facing a different problem. In 2010, a 100-hour pharmacy contract had been granted to an independent contractor a couple of hundred yards away from me. This was the first threat from an independent contractor that I was going to face. Rather than trying to compete by opening longer hours or delivering more, I saw the 24-hour automated prescription collection point as the solution to the threat.

After getting my head around the legislation and a couple of other minor points, I installed my Pharmaself24 just a month before the 100-hour pharmacy opened. Following an intensive marketing campaign that included an open day and special offers to attract new customers, I saw a significant jump in my prescription business. This had never been the intention – my goal had been to protect my market share when the new pharmacy opened. However, so successful and popular was the Pharmaself24 that it actually forced the new 100-hour pharmacy out of business.

4. What difficulties have you faced in installing the robots? Has it been disruptive?

Installing large, very often, bespoke dispensing robots can be disruptive. However, in my experience, it’s worth it. But you need to factor in a number of issues. Not only do you typically need around 12 square metres to accommodate an assembly robot like the Rowa but you will also need to carry out a refit to go around it. This can result in the costs involved being quite prohibitive. However, the Pharmaself24 only requires two square metres of floor space and in fact the only alteration that I needed to install my first one was to simply remove an external door through which the machine was pushed in.

5. Have the robots been worth the investment?

With regard to return of investment, the Rowa robots have allowed me to grow, in a very limited space, quickly and safely. In a busy, high volume dispensary, they are a must. In comparison, the Pharmaself24 serves a different purpose. What it does so well is to help secure your prescription business from the threat of mail order pharmacy by offering your patients convenience. As the robot is ‘patient-facing’, the patient interacts directly with it, and they grow to really appreciate it. It means that they can collect their prescriptions 24/7, when it suits them. They don’t have to wait for the postman! It is an affordable piece of automation that helps protect your business from bigger threats.

6. You have a very busy pharmacy but would dispensaries with less prescription volume benefit, and how?

I think any pharmacy or dispensary dispensing 7,000+ prescriptions per month could potentially benefit from an assembly robot. However, the practicalities of actually installing one can be prohibitive, mainly for reasons of space and cost. However, the Pharmaself24 is affordable automation that can really benefit any dispensary. If you think about it, once you have dispensed a prescription, you place it in the Pharmaself24 and that’s it. You no longer have to place it on a shelf and wait for the patient to come and collect it. With the Pharmaself24 you simply remove that step from the process and dispensary staff no longer waste time locating it on the shelf to hand over to the patient. Imagine how much time that saves for the dispensary staff and the patient.

7. Why should Dispex's readers consider automation? What can it do for them?

I think automation can help any dispensary, although as I have already mentioned, not all automation will necessarily suit every type of setup. However, choosing the right automation can increase productivity, save space, reduce costs and generate patient loyalty and satisfaction.

8. What do you see as the biggest threat to dispensing (both dispensing doctor and community pharmacy) in the next five years?

Pharmacy and dispensing doctors will face huge pressures and changes in the next five years. There is an ongoing push to reduce dispensing costs with reductions in fees and dispensing profits. But I think there is a bigger threat. At the moment, dispensing contractors are bordering on being ‘obsessed’ with the threat from mail order pharmacies, who are attracting large numbers of patients by offering high levels of convenience. And if this trend plays out to its logical conclusion, it’s only a matter of time before companies like Amazon enter the UK market with their infrastructure all ready to deliver convenient delivery options.

9. Do you think doctor dispensing will still be with us in ten year's time?

Great question. If I were to hazard a guess, then I would say yes. But I think that unless doctor dispensing and for that matter, community pharmacy doesn’t act now to offer patients a different experience and, in particular, convenience, then much of the dispensing business may well be eroded. Just look at what is happening on the High Street where ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers are suffering as a result of competition from online and mail order businesses.

10. What three areas do you think dispensing doctors should be focused on to ensure their survival in an ever-competitive dispensing world?

In order for dispensing doctors to get a competitive edge, they must re-focus their dispensaries around what patients want and need. With many people working all week, doing shift work and long hours, it’s not always easy for people to pick up a prescription during surgery opening hours. Just take a moment to put yourself into the shoes of the patient and ask yourself, ‘Would you be happy with the service that you receive from your dispensary?’

Contact Dispex on 01604 859000 or email to find out more