SAN DIEGO -- Seeking labor-saving alternatives to its pharmacy, Jeff Kong, director of pharmacy operations, Times Supermarkets, Honolulu, Hawaii, said the 13-store chain will expand its behind-the-counter automated prescription dispensing operation.
"With business circumstances as they are," he explained, referring to the man hours that are becoming more and more precious in light of an industry-wide shortage of pharmacists, "we automated." He spoke to SN during the National Association of Chain Drugs Stores' Pharmacy, Managed Care and Technology Conference and trade show here last month. "We're excited about the labor savings," he said.
Next month, Times will roll out two SP 200 automated prescription dispensing units, supplied by ScriptPro, Mission, Kan., doubling the number of units the chain currently uses. Once four of the retailers' 11 in-store pharmacies are operating the units, Kong expects to add another unit.
The SP 200 unit cost $172,500, which includes installation and training, according to Claire Coughlin, documentation and training manager for ScriptPro.
"There's a humongous pharmacist shortage," said Kong. "Hawaii had been insulated from that, but the problem on the (U.S.) mainland began to affect us."
Times, operating all of its locations in urban Oahu, saw its first SP 200 up and running in February of this year, according to Kong. "Within a week of installation, that unit alone was filling 50% of the total prescription volume at that store."
The literal rollout -- "you can just put it up against a wall and plug it in to a 110-volt outlet," Kong attested -- yielded other immediate results. "We estimated it saved four hours of the pharmacist's time each day within a month at [high-volume] stores that dispense 350 to 400 prescriptions a day."
For stores dispensing 150 scripts per day and above, cost of the SP 200 can be recouped within a five-year period, said Coughlin. For those high volume stores filling 300 to 350 scripts per day, it can take less than a year to recoup the cost of a dispensing unit.
The fifth unit anticipated by Kong is different from the first four. One of ScriptPro's two self-contained dispensing systems, the SP 200 uses a robotic arm that positions itself before one of 200 "cells" containing oral solid medications. A vial is then filled from the cell. The other system, the SP Unit Dispenser, referred to affectionately by the acronym SPUD, will account for the fifth system at Times. Rather than containing uniform cells that dispense pills, the SP Unit Dispenser uses shelves and a similar arm-retrieval system to dispense odd-shaped medication bottles and boxes. The cost of a SPUD system is $138,000.
"When we roll out SPUD, we hope 70% to 75% of scripts in that store will be done with both machines," said Kong.
ScriptPro robotics were chosen after "we looked at other automation," according to Kong, due to size and ease-of-use. There's basically no programming or networking of computers, he said, and the units are connected to the stores' information systems.
The automated dispensing units usually fit within the existing space found behind the pharmacy counter. "You can just take medication shelves out and put this in," said a ScriptPro official.
Coughlin said 1,500 SP 200s, which fill and label 100 vials per hour, have been deployed in various retail outlets. An estimated 100 of those outlets are supermarkets. Other grocery chains that are reportedly using the four-year-old system include Randalls Food Markets, Tom Thumb Food and Pharmacy, Safeway, Vons Cos., and Copps Corp., which is anticipating immediate rollout, another ScriptPro official said.