Between 2000 and 2009, the number of items dispensed to patients in community pharmacies increased by almost 70%, and the average number of items dispensed per head of population increased from 11.2 to 17.8. These figures suggest that the average pharmacy is storing and handling massively more packs than before, which clearly places both a strain on storage space and a strain on staff and pharmacists processing the additional work volumes. Those strains may, if not well addressed, be reflected in additional waiting times, lost customers and increased dispensing errors.

Whilst I would never suggest that automation is a panacea, for pharmacies at or above a certain level of business and still expecting to grow, partial or full automation is worth considering. Options can start from simply automating the selection of fastest moving items, which may still account for 60% of work, through to complete storage automation barring the most unusual shapes and sizes of packs. For anyone trying to get a pharmacy into a limited space such as say in a new health centre, automation may be the only way to practically achieve this.

From my experience of working alongside automation companies with pharmacists on automation projects, it is clear to me that most pharmacists underestimate the degree of change in working practices that is required to get the best from an investment in automation technology. Ideally the pharmacy and all its working processes need to be re-designed around the machine, rather than simply dropping a machine into a pharmacy and expecting that nothing else needs to change. This applies as much to hospital pharmacies as it does to community pharmacies.

I would always advise pharmacists who have no prior experience of working with automation to take independent advice before “getting out the cheque book”, in order to get the very best from their investment.

Further, I understand that the level of tax breaks available on large capital investments in businesses is due to be significantly reduced from its present level after the current tax year and is unlikely to fully cover a full  automation investment thereafter. So if you are considering making this investment, it will be more tax efficient this tax year than next.