Industry’s technology web supports nation in crisis
NEW YORK — If any recent event demonstrated the power of the chain drug industry’s technological might, it was the disaster wrought early last month by Hurricane Katrina.
Given the rapid and stunningly effective response the storm generated among a slew of competing but high-tech retail pharmacy providers, any doubts about the technological sophistication and communications capabilities of the best national and regional drug, supermarket and discount store chains should have been dispelled forever. The unprecedented level of on-the-spot logistical coordination those competitors were able to achieve in getting needed drugs and other supplies to uprooted patients saved lives.
That coordination stemmed directly from the massive investments in supply chain and distribution technology those retailers had made over the past two decades. And the follow-up–the lightning-fast, ad hoc creation of a system for disseminating electronic health records for roughly 1 million patients who had evacuated from hard-hit areas and had scattered throughout the United States–was like icing on the cake. The breathtaking speed at which pharmacy retailers collaborated with such other companies as SureScripts, with the federal government and with other health care providers to create the system, called KatrinaHealth, underscored the value of the investment in information systems and data warehousing by retail pharmacy.
It also underscored the need for a truly integrated health care system. The industry’s long quest for the most advanced robotic dispensing and pill-counting technology is justified in its own right–automating as much of the prescription dispensing process as possible may be the only way to stay ahead of dwindling pharmacy profit margins and maintain some level of profitability in the prescription drug business. But underlying the quest for a more efficient pharmacy workplace is another goal, as Katrina made clear: the need to create a national database to track patients’ prescription drug history and combine it with physicians’ records, lab results, OTC consumption patterns and other data in a national, electronic health grid. And given the investments that retail pharmacy already has made in dispensing and data-storage technology, such a system could be within reach as soon as the rest of the health care infrastructure catches up.
The quest for such an e-health system is helping to drive the development of the national e-prescribing system being promoted by SureScripts, the nation’s largest network provider of electronic prescribing services, and by other vendors. SureScripts president Kevin Hutchinson cited the critical need for health information technology … to support modern practices, such as electronic health records, e-prescribing and systematic adverse drug event reporting, [through] a national, Internet-based infrastructure for the exchange of health information based on recognized standards of privacy, security, neutrality, adaptability and interoperability.”
But the industry’s massive investments in automated prescription dispensing, data-driven drug replenishment systems and the integration of pharmacy and front-end technology is yielding other benefits, as well. It’s revolutionizing the way the pharmaceutical pipeline responds to patient needs.
Today’s automation applications have transformed the pharmacy into a set of distinct work stations, each staffed by a technician or pharmacist who interacts with the script-filling process via a secure password or scan-based entry code. Those systems contain multiple fail-safe capabilities to prevent filling errors, including ac ,curacy checks at each stage of the process. They re linked to such applications as customer signature-capture technology at the pharmacy counter, interactive voice-response hone systems for patient prescription call-in, script orders generated over the Internet and, increasingly by doctor-generated e-prescriptions that go directly from the physician’s office to the pharmacy’s dispensing queue.
Today, many systems also incorporate software that allows the pharmacy to adjust its prescription prices quickly and automatically in response to local competition, new generic and branded drug opportunities and price updates from third party payers.
One technology application that remains uncertain is that of radio frequency identification for pharmaceuticals and other inventory. Progress toward a universal, RFID-based supply chain system, where all inventory is tagged for instant identification and tracking, has been halting, at best, despite the aggressive promotion of the technology from Wal-Mart.”
The main focus on RFID for the drug retailing industry has been on keeping track of the chain of ownership of pharmaceuticals to ensure that counterfeit or out-of-date drugs do not get into the system,” noted Lehman Bros. retail analyst Meredith Adler. However, she noted, it isn’t likely to quickly supplant the inventory tracking and reorder systems already in place at sophisticated technology-wielding retail chains.
“While RFID is an interesting technology, Adler noted, it is also expensive, and the cost/benefit analysis does not indicate that [those retailers] should put great effort into the technology.
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