Brave new world of pharmaceuticals: Walgreens prescription drugs will now be dispensed by robots - ForumDaily
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Brave new world of pharmaceuticals: Walgreens prescription drugs will now be dispensed by robots

Pharmacy chain Walgreens plans to expand the use of robots for dispensing prescription drugs to free up pharmacists' time for other critical services. CNBC.

Photo: Shutterstock

Bright yellow robotic arms are becoming a larger part of Walgreens' workforce.

At a sprawling Dallas-area facility, robots prepare thousands of prescription drugs for customers who take medication to control or treat high blood pressure, diabetes, or other conditions. Each robot can process 300 prescriptions an hour, about the same as a small-staff Walgreens drugstore can process in a day, the company says.

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Walgreens Boots Alliance is opening automated centers to keep up with the rapidly changing pharmacy industry. The pandemic has heightened the pharmacy chain's need to stay relevant as online pharmacies shrink sales and more customers have products from toilet paper to toothpaste delivered to their doorsteps. The global health crisis has boosted demand for pharmacists as hospitals and pharmacies have hired them to provide COVID vaccinations and testing.

This forced Walgreens and its competitors CVS Health and Rite Aid to rethink the role of their pharmacies and pharmacists.

Walgreens' new CEO, former Starbucks COO Rose Brewer, wants healthcare to be the company's "growth engine." Walgreens has acquired a majority stake in VillageMD, a primary care company, and iA, a healthcare and pharmacy automation technology company that is helping Walgreens build centralized facilities.

By 2025, up to half of Walgreens' prescription volume can be obtained from automated centers, said Rex Swords, who oversees facilities as Walgreens group president of centralized services, operations and scheduling.

This will free up more time for pharmacists to provide medical care, Brewer said.

“We are doing this to make it easier for pharmacists to work and focus on priorities, build relationships with patients and interact with them the way they were taught,” said Walgreens CEO Rosalind Brewer.

Pharmacists will continue to make emergency medicines and monitor controlled substances at local pharmacies.

CVS uses robotics to help prepare recipes in its top-selling stores, but through a spokesperson, the company declined to say how much of its total capacity is being filled by automation.

Walgreens will release its second quarter earnings report on March 31st.


The robotic center in Northlake, about 60 km northwest of Dallas, provides a glimpse into the future of Walgreens. It employs 220 people, including several licensed pharmacists.

The facility in Dallas processes about 35 prescriptions each day, but that number will eventually rise to 000 a day, Swords said.

Over the next three years, Walgreens plans to grow to 22 locations serving more than 8500 of the company's nearly 9000 pharmacies. Walgreens opened two centers near Phoenix and Memphis.

Instead of doing everything by hand, pill bottles and caps go through a well-oiled and highly automated assembly line.

A team of workers delivers containers of pills to the robots. Each medicine has its own capacity and pill counter. A yellow robotic arm grabs a labeled bottle of pills and brings it to a container that dispenses pills like a carefully calibrated vending machine. Then, before the pill bottle leaves the container, it is closed with a cap.

At the Dallas facility, the robotic units can dispense about 900 different drugs. Some commonly used medications are in multiple dispensers to keep up with the workload.

Bottles of pills travel along the conveyor. At one station, some of them are combined with the patient's other drugs or with the rest of his or her 90-day supply of drugs. Scanners read barcodes so printers can prepare documents and packages for customers to pick up later.

These orders are now bagged and delivered by robots on wheels. The devices sort prescriptions and put them into plastic containers that are sent to the same pharmacy. About 30% of the facility's prescriptions don't pass the automated assembly line, Swords said. Instead, workers manually prepare items such as asthma inhalers, eye drops and temperature-controlled medicines.

Security checks are carried out throughout the process. Pharmacists check medicines in pill containers and bottles, electronic locks on robot modules that can detect and stop dispensing if a container is in the wrong place, and zippers on bags that transport orders to stores.

Institutions are not yet fulfilling direct mail prescriptions, Swords said, but that is in the program's plans.

More practicing pharmacists

AmeriSourceBergen trucks deliver ready-to-pick orders to more than 500 pharmacies across most of Texas, parts of Arkansas and Louisiana - within a radius of about 700 km. These same trucks deliver drugs in bulk to those pharmacies.

It would be hard for shoppers to notice the shift towards automation - except for slightly different packaging.

For Walgreens, the investment could lead to cost savings and new revenue streams. Walgreens President John Standley said at the company's October Investor Day that microfill centers will reduce the company's working capital by $2025 billion by 1,1.

He said that as more orders are processed by robots, pharmacists can take on other responsibilities, such as testing and treating illnesses like streptococcus or the flu, and writing prescriptions for people at risk of contracting HIV.

For example, as part of a pilot program, pharmacists in Ohio provide advice and manage the care of patients with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Rick Fernandez, regional health director for Walgreens in the Dallas area, observed that the pandemic has highlighted the value of pharmacists and how they can be used more intelligently.

Automation can reduce the need for staff and turn pharmacists into more hands-on healthcare providers. It is not yet clear how this could be implemented – whether it would mean a smaller pharmacy staff or a workforce of the same or larger size but with different roles. State laws are another factor. Walgreens is urging state legislators to allow pharmacists to provide a broader range of healthcare services.

The challenge, he said, will be to convince customers and insurers to pay rather than expect free services.

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“One of the key questions is whether they get paid for this,” he stressed. “The idea or hope is that over time they will actually be reimbursed for providing services to patients.”

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