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Walgreens turns to robots to fill prescriptions, as pharmacists tackle extra obligations

Walgreens is utilizing automation to fill extra of shoppers’ prescriptions. Inside a Dallas space facility, shiny yellow robotic arms maintain tablet bottles as much as dispensers, which launch tablets like a rigorously calibrated merchandising machine.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

NORTHLAKE, Texas — Vivid yellow robotic arms have gotten a much bigger a part of Walgreens‘ workforce.

Inside of a big facility within the Dallas space, they fill 1000’s of prescriptions for purchasers who take medicines to handle or deal with hypertension, diabetes or different circumstances. Every robotic can fill 300 prescriptions in an hour, the corporate stated — roughly the identical quantity {that a} typical Walgreens pharmacy with a handful of employees might do in a day.

Walgreens Boots Alliance is opening the automated, centralized hubs to maintain up in the fast-changing pharmacy industry. The pandemic has intensified the pharmacy chain’s want to remain related as on-line pharmacies siphon off gross sales and extra prospects have gadgets from rest room paper to toothpaste delivered to their doorstep. The worldwide well being disaster has additionally heightened demand for pharmacists, as hospitals and drugstores employed them to manage Covid vaccines and exams.

That has compelled Walgreens and its opponents, CVS Health and Rite Aid, to rethink the position of their shops and pharmacists.

Walgreens’ new CEO, former Starbucks working chief Roz Brewer, wants to make health care the company’s “growth engine.” It acquired the majority stake of VillageMD, a main care firm, and iA, a pharmacy and health-care automation expertise firm that’s serving to it construct out the centralized hubs. It’s exploring a possible sale of its U.K.-based Boots business.

By 2025, as a lot as half of Walgreens’ prescription quantity from shops may very well be crammed on the automated facilities, stated Rex Swords, who oversees amenities as Walgreens’ group president of centralized companies, operations and planning.

That can unlock extra of pharmacists’ time to offer well being care, Brewer stated in an interview with CNBC’s Bertha Coombs.

“We’re doing all of this work, in order that the pharmacist has a better job, in order that they’ll get again to being entrance and middle, constructing a relationship with that affected person and interacting the best way they have been educated — the work that they like to do,” she stated.

Pharmacists will proceed to fill time-sensitive medicines and managed substances at native shops as the corporate expands its use of robots.

Brian Tanquilut, an analyst for Jefferies, stated the automation may assist Walgreens give attention to methods to distinguish from on-line pharmacies suh as Amazon-owned PillPack and Capsule, and CVS, which owns well being insurer Aetna and pharmacy advantages supervisor Caremark.

“It is a complementary transfer to a few of the health-care technique they’ve laid out,” he stated.

CVS makes use of robotics to help in filling prescriptions in its highest quantity shops, however by a spokesperson, the corporate declined to say how a lot of its total quantity is crammed by automation.

Walgreens will share its fiscal second-quarter earnings on Thursday.

Capsule bottles and caps transfer by a choreographed and extremely automated meeting line within the Dallas space. Walgreens is constructing comparable micro-fulfilment facilities throughout the nation.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

A glimpse of the longer term

The robot-powered middle in Northlake, roughly 36 miles northwest of Dallas, provides a glimpse of Walgreens’ future. It’s staffed by 220 staff, together with a handful of licensed pharmacists.

Every day, about 35,000 prescriptions are crammed on the Dallas space facility — however finally that quantity will improve to as many as 100,000 day by day, Swords stated.

Over the subsequent three years, Walgreens plans to develop to a complete of twenty-two amenities that serve over 8,500 of the corporate’s practically 9,000 shops. It has opened two others close to Phoenix and Memphis.

As an alternative of getting crammed by hand, tablet bottles and caps transfer by a choreographed and extremely automated meeting line.

Canisters of capsules go into robot-powered pods at Walgreens’ automated facility within the Dallas space.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

A workforce feed robotic pods containers of capsules. Every medicine will get its personal canister and tablet counter. A yellow robotic arm grabs a labeled tablet bottle and holds it as much as the canister, which dispenses capsules like a rigorously calibrated merchandising machine.

Then, earlier than the tablet bottle leaves the pod, it get topped with a cap.

Within the Dallas facility, the robotic pods can dispense about 900 completely different medicines. Some frequent medicines are in a number of dispensers to maintain up with the workload.

Capsule bottles journey alongside the observe. At one station, some get paired up with a affected person’s different medicines or the remainder of his or her 90-day medicine provide. Scanners learn bar codes, so printers can put together paperwork and baggage that prospects will later decide up.

These prescriptions — now packaged in a bag — are ferried by Roomba-like rolling robots. The units type prescriptions and drop them into plastic totes that head to the identical pharmacy location.

A employee locations crammed and packaged prescriptions on rolling robots at Walgreens’ centralized facility within the Dallas space. The robots assist type the prescriptions and drop them into plastic totes that head to the identical pharmacy location.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

About 30% of prescriptions on the facility skip the automated meeting line, Swords stated. As an alternative, staff manually put together gadgets like bronchial asthma inhalers, eye drops and temperature-controlled medicines.

There are safety and security checks all through the method, together with pharmacists who confirm the medicines in canisters and tablet bottles, digital locks on the robotic pods that may detect and cease meting out if a canister is within the mistaken spot, and zip ties on totes that transport the crammed prescriptions to shops.

The amenities don’t but fill junk mail prescriptions, however that’s on this system’s roadmap, Swords stated.

Extra hands-on pharmacists

Vans from AmeriSourceBergen drive the ready-to-pickup prescriptions to greater than 500 drugstores throughout most of Texas, components of Arkansas and components of Louisiana — a radius of about 400 miles. The identical vehicles additionally ship wholesale medicine to these pharmacies.

To prospects, the change to automation could be exhausting to detect — except for barely completely different packaging.

For Walgreens, the funding may translate into price financial savings and new streams of income. Walgreens President John Standley stated on the firm’s investor day in October that the micro-fulfillment facilities will scale back the corporate’s working capital by $1.1 billion by 2025.

As extra prescriptions get crammed by robots, he stated pharmacists can tackle different duties that Walgreens can invoice to insurers or prospects, comparable to testing and treating medical circumstances like strep or the flu and writing prescriptions for individuals vulnerable to HIV.

For instance, as a part of a pilot program, pharmacists in Ohio are counseling and managing look after sufferers with bronchial asthma and power obstructive pulmonary illness.

Rick Fernandez, a regional well being care director for Walgreens within the Dallas space, stated the pandemic underscored the worth of pharmacists and the way they can be utilized in smarter methods.

“It is form of dreary to be filling scripts all day lengthy,” he stated. “What we have been listening to was pharmacy was extra of an asset that individuals gave us credit score for.”

Jefferies’ Tanquilut stated the automation can scale back staffing wants and switch pharmacists into extra hands-on medical suppliers. It is not clear how that will play out — whether or not that can imply smaller pharmacy employees or a workforce that is the identical dimension or larger, however with completely different roles. One other issue is state legal guidelines. Walgreens is urging state lawmakers to permit pharmacists to offer an extended listing of health-care companies.

The problem, he stated, might be convincing prospects and insurers to pay — quite than anticipating free recommendation.

“One of many key questions is ‘Are you getting paid for this stuff?'” he stated. “The concept or the hope is that over time, there might be precise reimbursement for them offering that service to sufferers.”

Be part of us for Wholesome Returns on Wednesday, March 30 to listen to well being care consultants, together with Walgreens Boots Alliance CEO Roz Brewer, focus on well being tech investing, the drug market, well being fairness, wellness packages and extra. Register here.

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