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Walgreens turns to robots to fill prescriptions, as pharmacists take on more responsibilities


Walgreens has used automation to fulfill more customers’ prescriptions. In a Dallas-area facility, robot arms in bright yellow hold the pill bottles high up and release them as if they were a calibrated vending machines.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

NORTHLAKE, Texas — Bright yellow robotic arms are becoming a bigger part of Walgreens‘ workforce.

The robots fill thousands of prescriptions every hour for patients who are taking medication to treat or manage high blood pressure, diabetes, or any other condition. Each robot can fill 300 prescriptions in an hour, the company said — roughly the same number that a typical Walgreens pharmacy with a handful of staff may do in a day.

Walgreens Boots Alliance has opened the automated, centralized hubs. in the fast-changing pharmacy industry. This pandemic has made it more difficult for the drugstore chain to survive as many online pharmacies take sales away and customers receive everything from toothpaste to toilet paper delivered straight to their doors. As hospitals and drugstores have hired pharmacists to provide Covid vaccinations and other tests, the demand has increased.

This has made Walgreens, and other competitors, to change. CVS HealthAnd Rite AidTo rethink their role as pharmacists and stores.

Walgreens’ new CEO, former Starbucks operating chief Roz Brewer, wants to make health care the company’s “growth engine.” It acquired the majority stake of VillageMDiA, a pharmaceutical and technology company for health-care automation, is helping to establish the centralized hubs. It’s exploring the possibility of selling its U.K.-based Boots business.

Walgreens could have half the prescription volume by 2025 From stores Could be filled in the automated centers,” said Rex Swords who is Walgreens’ group President of Central Services, Operations and Planning.

Brewer spoke out in an interview on CNBC about how this would free more pharmacists up to offer health care. Bertha Coombs.

“We’re doing all of this work, so that the pharmacist has an easier job, so that they can get back to being front and center, building a relationship with that patient and interacting the way they were trained — the work that they love to do,” she said.

The company is expanding its use robots so that pharmacists can continue filling time-sensitive controlled substances at local shops.

Jefferies analyst Brian Tanquilut said that automation can help Walgreens to focus on how they differentiate themselves from online pharmacies. AmazonPillPack and Capsule owned by CVS. CVS also owns Aetna and Caremark, a pharmacy benefits manager.

He stated that “this is a complement to some health-care strategy strategies they’ve set out”.

CVS employs robotics for prescription filling in high volume pharmacies. However, a spokesperson said that the company does not know how much automation is used.

Walgreens shares its fiscal second-quarter earnings with the public on Thursday

The Dallas metro area has a high-tech assembly line that moves pill bottles and caps. Walgreens has similar micro-fulfillment centers all over the country.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

A peek into the future

Walgreens is showing off its future with the help of a robot-powered centre in Northlake. It’s located about 36 miles northeast of Dallas. There are 220 employees, some of whom also hold licenses as pharmacists.

Each day, about 35,000 prescriptions are filled at the Dallas area facility — but eventually that number will increase to as many as 100,000 daily, Swords said.

Walgreens will expand to 22 locations over the next three-years, which would serve more than 8,500 stores. The company has also opened another two in the vicinity of Phoenix and Memphis.

Pill bottles and caps are no longer filled manually. They move along a highly-automated assembly line.

Pill canisters are placed in robot-powered pods at Walgreens automated plant in Dallas.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

Robot pods are fed by a team of workers. Each medicine gets its own container and a pill counter. The yellow robot arm grasps the labeled bottle of medication and raises it to the canister. It then dispenses them like an accurately calibrated vending machine.

Finally, the cap is added to the top of the capsule before it leaves the pod.

The robot pods in Dallas can dispense approximately 900 medications. To keep up with demand, some common medicines are stored in several dispensers.

Along the track, pill bottles can be found. They can be linked up at one station with patients’ other medication or the remainder of their 90-day medication supply. Bar codes can be read by scanners, which allows printers to prepare paper and bags for customers.

Those prescriptions — now packaged in a bag — are ferried by Roomba-like rolling robots. These robots sort and place prescriptions in plastic bags that are then taken to the pharmacy.

Walgreens workers fill and package prescriptions using rolling robots in their central Dallas facility. Robots sort prescriptions, drop them in plastic bags and take them to the pharmacy.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

Swords reported that 30% of all prescriptions in the facility are made without the use of an automated assembly line. Instead, workers manually prepare items like asthma inhalers, eye drops and temperature-controlled medications.

Security and safety checks are performed throughout the entire process. These include pharmacists verifying the medication in pill bottles and canisters, electronic locks for robot pods that detect when a canister is not in the right spot and zip ties to totes used to transport filled prescriptions from stores to the canisters.

Swords indicated that the facility does not currently fill direct mail prescriptions but said this is on their roadmap.

Pharmacists who are more hands-on

Trucks for sale AmeriSourceBergenIncrease the number of ready-to-pickup prescriptions by more than 500 drugstores across most of Texas, parts of Arkansas and parts of Louisiana — a radius of about 400 miles. These same trucks can also transport wholesale drugs to these pharmacies.

To customers, the change to automation would be hard to detect — aside from slightly different packaging.

Walgreens could see cost savings as well as new revenue streams from the investment. John Standley, Walgreens’ President stated at October’s Investor Day that micro-fulfillment centres will help reduce Walgreens’ working capital to $1.1 billion by 2025.

As more prescriptions get filled by robots, he said pharmacists can take on other duties that Walgreens can bill to insurers or customers, such as testing and treating medical conditions like strep or the flu and writing prescriptions for people at risk of HIV.

In Ohio, for example, pharmacies can help patients with chronic obstructive and asthma as part of pilot programs.

Rick Fernandez was a Walgreens Dallas regional director in health care. Fernandez said that the pandemic demonstrated the need for pharmacists as well as how smarter they could be utilized.

He said, “It is kind of boring to be filling out scripts all day.” We were told that pharmacy was more valuable than people thought.

Tanquilut of Jefferies said that the automation will reduce staffing requirements and transform pharmacists into more skilled medical professionals. It’s not clear how that may play out — whether that will mean smaller pharmacy staff or a workforce that’s the same size or bigger, but with different roles. The state laws can also play a role. Walgreens has asked state legislators to permit pharmacists to offer a wider range of services.

The challenge, he said, will be convincing customers and insurers to pay — rather than expecting free advice.

“One of my key questions is, “Are these items being paid?” He stated. The idea, or at least the hope, is that patients will eventually be reimbursed for this kind of service.

On Wednesday, March 30, Healthy Returns will host a panel discussion featuring health care professionals, including Roz Brewer (Walgreens Boots Alliance CEO), on topics such as health tech investing and health equity. Register here.