Walgreens turn to robots to fill prescriptions, as pharmacists take more

Walgreens is using automation to further meet customers’ prescriptions. Inside the Dallas area facility, bright yellow robotic weapons hold pill bottles up to the dispenser, releasing tablets like carefully calibrated vending machines.

Melissa Repco | CNBC

NORTHLAKE, Texas – Bright yellow robotic weapons are becoming a big part of the Walgreens’ workforce.

Within a large facility in the Dallas area, they fill thousands of prescriptions for customers taking medications for the management or treatment of high blood pressure, diabetes or other conditions. Each robot can fill up to 300 prescriptions in an hour, the company says – roughly the same number as a typical Walgreens pharmacy that can handle a handful of workers in a single day.

The Walgreens Boots Alliance is opening an automated, centralized hub to stay afloat in the rapidly changing pharmacy industry. The epidemic has exacerbated the need for drug store chains to remain relevant as online pharmacies have stopped selling and more items, from toilet paper to toothpaste, have been delivered to more customers. The global health crisis has increased the demand for pharmacists, as hospitals and drugstores have hired them to administer covid vaccines and tests.

This has forced Walgreens and its competitors, CVS Health and Wright Aid, to rethink their role as stores and pharmacists.

Rose Brewer, Walgreens’ new CEO and former Starbucks operating chief, wants to make healthcare the company’s “growth engine.” It has acquired a majority stake in VillageMD, a primary care company and IA, a pharmacy and healthcare automation technology company, helping to create a centralized hub. It is exploring a potential sale of its UK-based boot business.

By 2025, half of Walgreens’ prescription volume From the store Automated centers can be filled, said Rex Swords, who oversees the facilities as president of the Walgreens Group of Centralized Services, Operations and Planning.

This will free up more time for pharmacists to provide healthcare, Brewer said in an interview with CNBC’s Bertha Combs.

“We’re doing all this work so that the pharmacist has a simple job, so that they can go back and forth, build a relationship with the patient and they were trained – to do whatever job they like,” he said.

Pharmacists will continue to fill time-sensitive drugs and controlled substances in local stores as the company expands its use of robots.

Jeffreys analyst Brian Tanquillut says automation can help focus on ways to differentiate Walgreens from online pharmacies, such as Amazon-owned Pillpacks and Capsules and CVS, owned by health insurer Aetna and pharmacy benefit manager Caremark.

“It’s a complement to some of their healthcare strategies,” he said.

CVS uses robotics to help fill prescriptions at its maximum volume stores, but through a spokesman, the company declined to say how much of its overall volume was filled by automation.

Walgreens will share its financial second-quarter earnings on Thursday.

Pill bottles and caps run through a choreographed and highly automated assembly line in the Dallas area. Walgreens is building similar micro-filament centers across the country.

Melissa Repco | CNBC

A glimpse of the future

Northlake’s robot-powered center, about 36 miles northwest of Dallas, foreshadows the future of the Walgreens. It has 220 employees, some of whom are licensed pharmacists.

Every day, about 35,000 prescriptions are filled at the Dallas Area Facility – but that number will eventually rise to about 100,000 per day, Swords said.

Over the next three years, Walgreens plans to expand a total of 22 facilities, serving more than 8,500 of the company’s nearly 9,000 stores. It has two more openings near Phoenix and Memphis.

Instead of being filled by hand, pill bottles and caps run through a choreographed and highly automated assembly line.

The pill canister goes robot-powered at Walgreens’ automated facility in the Dallas area.

Melissa Repco | CNBC

A group of workers is feeding the robot pods into pill containers. Each drug has its own canister and pill counter. A yellow robotic arm grabs a labeled pill bottle and holds it in the canister, which distributes the pills like a carefully calibrated vending machine.

Then, before the pill bottle leaves the pod, it goes to the top with a cap.

At the Dallas facility, the robot pods can deliver about 900 different drugs. Some common medications are available in multiple dispensers to keep up with the workload.

Pill bottles travel along the track. At one station, some are associated with the patient’s other medications or the rest of his or her 90-day medication delivery. The scanner reads bar codes, so printers can prepare papers and bags that customers will pick up later.

These prescriptions – now packaged in a bag – are ferried by Rumbar-like rolling robots. The devices pick up prescriptions and drop them into plastic bags that move to the same pharmacy location.

One worker puts prescriptions filled and packaged into rolling robots at Walgreens’ centralized facility in the Dallas area. The robots help sort out the prescriptions and throw them in plastic bags that go to the same pharmacy location.

Melissa Repco | CNBC

About 30% of the facilities skip the prescription automatic assembly line, Swords said. Instead, staff manually prepare items such as asthma inhalers, eye drops, and temperature-controlled medications.

Throughout the process there are safety and security tests, including pharmacists who verify drugs in canister and pill bottles, electronic locks on robot pods that can detect and stop delivery if a canister is in the wrong place, and zip ties on transport tots. Store Admission Prescription.

The benefits do not yet meet the direct mail prescriptions, but it is in the program’s roadmap, Swords said.

More hands-on pharmacists

Trucks from AmeriSourceBergen run prescription ready for more than 500 pickups Drug stores across much of Texas, parts of Arkansas, and parts of Louisiana – about 400 miles in radius. The same truck also supplies wholesale medicines to these pharmacies.

For customers, automation changes will be difficult to detect – except for slightly different packaging.

For Walgreens, investing could translate into savings and new streams of revenue. John Stanley, president of Walgreens, said at the company’s Investors’ Day in October that micro-filament centers would reduce the company’s operating capital by 25 1.1 billion by 2025.

With more prescriptions being fulfilled by robots, he said pharmacists could take on other responsibilities that Walgreens could bill insurers or customers, such as examining and treating medical conditions such as strep or flu, and writing prescriptions for people at risk of HIV.

For example, as part of a pilot program, pharmacists in Ohio are conducting counseling and care for patients with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Rick Fernandez, regional health care director at Walgreens in the Dallas area, said the epidemic reflects the value of pharmacists and how they can be used in smarter ways.

“Filling scripts all day is kind of scary,” he said. “What we’re hearing is that pharmacy is an asset that people give us credit for.”

Jefferies’ Tanquilut said automation could reduce staff demand and turn pharmacists into more hands-on medical providers. It’s not clear how effective this could be – it means a small pharmacy worker or a workforce of the same size or larger, but with a different role. Another reason is state law. Walgreens is urging state lawmakers to allow pharmacists to provide a longer list of healthcare services.

The challenge, he said, is to persuade customers and insurers to pay – without expecting free advice.

“A key question is ‘Are you getting paid for these things?'” He said. “The idea or hope is that over time, patients will have a real reward for providing that service.”

Join us for a healthy return on Wednesday, March 30th, to hear from healthcare experts including Walgreens Boots Alliance CEO Roz Brewer, discuss healthcare technology investments, the drug market, health equity, wellness programs and more. Registration Here.

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