The typical pharmacist’s workload is dominated by administrative tasks. As well as dispensing prescriptions, they need to make detailed records, keep files up to date and ensure that products are in stock. These pressures, intense at the best of times, are compounded by an ageing patient demographic with more complex medication needs.

It’s meticulous and time-consuming work. Last year, a report released by the Department of Health and Social Care quantified how many medication errors are made in England each year. The estimated total – 237 million – is galling, even when you consider that 72% carry little or no potential for harm.

Using adverse drug reactions as a proxy for medication errors, the report estimates these errors cause 712 deaths a year and are implicated in many more.

In short, pharmacists can’t afford any lapses in concentration. The upshot is more time spent on admin, less time spent face-to-face with patients.

It’s a situation that Omnicell UK & Ireland is trying to redress. In June, the company launched its vision for the Autonomous Pharmacy, billed as the future of digital medication management.

“The ultimate goal is to place pharmacists and other clinicians at the centre of patient care allowing them to practice at the top of their profession,” explains Paul O’Hanlon, managing director of Omnicell UK & Ireland. “We will do this by automating what are now manual tasks as well as providing intelligence so clinicians and managers can make more informed decisions.”

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The idea is to free pharmacists from mundane administrative responsibilities and, in doing so, fundamentally change the nature of their roles.

“The Autonomous Pharmacy is not about replacing humans – it is about freeing up staff from tasks that can be automated so that they are free to care for patients, the reason that they entered the profession in the first place,” says O’Hanlon.

A comprehensive vision

As a leading provider of automated healthcare and medication adherence solutions, Omnicell has a strong track record in this field. Founded in 1992, way before the current era of big data and artificial intelligence, the company has long sought to create safer ways of managing medication. Today, it provides automation and analytics solutions across the entire healthcare continuum, from the hospital to the patient’s home.

While the company already offers many automation-based solutions, the Autonomous Pharmacy – as a comprehensive vision – is new.

“This is a journey and we are already delivering on the roadmap with many solutions already available, and a plan to introduce several more products and solutions to the UK market over the next 12 months,” says O’Hanlon. “We plan to work with pharmacy professionals throughout this journey to ensure what is being developed is what is needed in the market.”

The basis of the Autonomous Pharmacy will be a connected pharmacy cloud infrastructure, which will provide data insights and analytics in real time. It will enable medications to be automatically sorted, picked, labeled and reconciled at every step of the way.

Pharmacists will be able to use this network to ensure the right dose of medication is given to the right patient at the right time. All the contextual information around that dose – patient, utilisation, prescribing pharmacist etc – will be stored in the cloud.

As well as a cloud platform, the Autonomous Pharmacy will include various workflow automation products, expert support services and data intelligence solutions. The advantages, says O’Hanlon, will be wide-ranging.

“The Autonomous Pharmacy will dramatically improve patient safety, remove obstacles to efficiency, lower costs and cut out waste, tighten regulatory compliance and address population health challenges,” he says. “The use of AI is still in the early stages, but embracing the power of AI will support decision making.”

Towards a zero-error system

Because it eliminates the capacity for human error, the Autonomous Pharmacy should in principle spell the end of medication mistakes.

“A key part of the Autonomous Pharmacy will be reducing human touchpoints in the medication use process and driving toward a zero-error system,” says O’Hanlon. “Our automated solutions are already making a difference in improving patient safety and delivering efficiencies in hospitals, pharmacies and care homes. The Autonomous Pharmacy is the next step which will take this to another level.”

It’s a timely proposition. In July, the NHS launched its new Patient Safety Strategy, a series of recommendations that could save 1,000 lives a year by 2023-24. This includes a Medicines Safety Programme to support medicines safety systems across the NHS. Omnicell believes that automated administration, mentioned in the report, will be key to meeting these goals.

Another key consideration is the lowered costs. In the US, drug costs are rising at ten times the rate of inflation, with $485bn spent on medications each year, and the situation is little different elsewhere in the world. This means there’s a real need to improve efficiency wherever possible.

There is certainly a demand for systems of this kind. In to a survey of 63 pharmacists commissioned by Omnicell, 87% think the pharmacy profession has been slow to adopt new technology, while 73% think there should be more focus on tech and automation in the pharmacy syllabus. Automation provides 77% of pharmacists with heightened confidence around patient safety.

As for what kind of challenges the Autonomous Pharmacy might pose, O’Hanlon thinks there may be some resistance associated with getting used to a new system. Ultimately, though, the advantages will speak for themselves.

“As with all technology one of the greatest challenges is adoption by staff and changes to workflows and processes,” he says. “But we believe the autonomous pharmacy vision will mean nursing and pharmacy staff will no longer spend time performing administrative tasks that keep them away for patient care. This in itself should drive adoption.”