Jan 06 2023

Community Pharmacies Tap Digital Technologies to Improve Patient Access

Pharmacies are laying the foundation for digital-first omnichannel experiences that elevate the role of the pharmacist.

Pharmacists play a critical role in healthcare delivery today. The local pharmacy is a mainstay of the community, serving as a convenient, accessible destination for a wide range of healthcare services and wellness needs.

Technology allows retail pharmacists to do more purpose-driven, patient-centered work.

Pharmacies took a lead role in providing vaccinations during the pandemic. They are using technologies including artificial intelligence (AI) and the cloud, along with digital-first solutions, from smart chatbots to online scheduling options.

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Community Pharmacies Rely on Automated Workflows and AI-Enabled Personalization

“When you think about the medically underserved in rural areas, pharmacies are likely the only convenient access to care,” says Jason Ausili, head of pharmacy transformation at EnlivenHealth. “Expanding services that pharmacies provide can include things like point-of-care and test-to-treat initiatives for flu, strep or other communicable diseases.”

He says cloud-based technology enables automation in healthcare workflows, which results in a more consistent and efficient process for both the patient and the pharmacy, from scheduling and documentation to billing.

“When you have automation and scheduling, it results in a more personalized patient experience by leveraging AI and chat functionality to pave the path for more efficient navigation of this experience, empowering the patient and gathering the right information upfront,” Ausili says.

Siddharth Tenneti, vice president of pharmacy growth and insights for CVS, agrees that the pharmacy of the future offers a differentiated, omnichannel, personalized experience.

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“We want our digital tools to enhance patients’ experiences, whether at the pharmacy or online,” he explains. “When we do this right, we can help ensure our patients have more meaningful and trusted pharmacist interactions when, how and where they want.”

He adds that digital tools can also help free up time and capacity for pharmacy teams to deliver clinical patient care when it matters most.

One digital solution is Spoken Rx, which allows patients with visual impairments to hear critical prescription information spoken aloud via radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology.

Enrolled patients can use Spoken Rx through the CVS Pharmacy app. Patients hold their prescription bottles or packages within 4 inches of their smartphones to hear prescription information in English or Spanish.

Telepharmacy, where allowed by state law, is also a method CVS is exploring to ensure patients have convenient access to pharmacy care in areas where it is scarce.

“It allows us to leverage our scale and use new digital technologies while enabling a staffing model that ensures our local footprint remains open for business and best serves our patients where they need us,” Tenneti says.

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The company’s licensed pharmacists perform remotely the same tasks they would in-store, including verifying prescriptions, conducting safety checks and performing patient consultations, while state-licensed, board-certified pharmacy technicians operate the physical pharmacy.

“This ensures and increases patients’ access to local, convenient pharmacy care and allows us to maintain hours of operation where it would otherwise not be feasible,” he says.

Kathryn Heffernan of UPMC Enterprises
This technology can help drive clinical outcomes and prioritize outreach to patients who need additional support in managing their medications.”

Kathryn Heffernan Director of Product Management, UPMC Enterprises

Community Pharmacies’ AI-Powered Chatbots Enable Medication Adherence

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which owns and operates 14 retail pharmacies, many of which are in or attached to its hospitals, has developed an AI-powered virtual assistant and customer relationship management platform called Rx Express.

Kathryn Heffernan, director of product management at UPMC Enterprises, says the platform was designed to lower readmissions by integrating pharmacy support directly into the discharge process for patients.

“We took this idea of chatbot technology combined with a back-end CRM platform, which come together to communicate with patients where they are via SMS, or a robocall if they don’t have a mobile number,” she says. “This technology can help drive clinical outcomes and prioritize outreach to patients who need additional support in managing their medications.”

Those who sign up for the program receive automatic follow-ups for prescription refills and to check medication adherence.

Heffernan notes the chatbot will triage any major issues to a human staffer for the right level of intervention.

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“These aren’t fire-and-forget messages,” she explains. “They’re more interactive. They change based on patient responses, so we can really get the patient through to the right endpoint.”

She adds that the platform, which is serving about 60,000 patients across 12 pharmacies, could further be developed to offer services like chatbot-enabled appointment scheduling.

Community Pharmacies Deploy Automation and Dynamic Workload Sharing

Tenneti notes that robotics, automation, machine learning and AI have also helped power CVS’ new approach to dynamic workload sharing across its more than 9,000 stores.

“With our new workshare model, certain parts of pharmacy workflow can be completed virtually and may be done by a team in a neighboring store or centrally, varying by state,” he says.

By allowing staff to operate as a team instead of managing individual store workloads, the company has improved efficiency and the capacity for pharmacists to have more direct interaction with patients.

“This multifaceted approach to pharmacy workflow optimizes our presence in local communities so we can continue to safely serve patients where and when they need us most,” he says.

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