The inner workings of hospital pharmacies changed dramatically thanks to COVID-19. 70% of hospital pharmacists took on new job responsibilities during the pandemic. Most of the time, this meant filling hospital gaps in hand sanitizers, disinfectants, and medications. Hospitals also changed medication use guidelines to better address COVID-19 treatment and investigational drug studies. At the same time as these new responsibilities, hospital pharmacies face increasing costs and decreasing revenues. Paying for more PPE and drugs in short supply adds up, and a drop in elective procedures means fewer new prescriptions coming in.
These problems would be difficult to deal with by themselves, but central pharmacies also face a worsening staff shortage. Even before the pandemic, 75% of pharmacists reported symptoms of burnout. Conditions of the pandemic increased the scope and severity of burnout for pharmacy employees. Many fled the profession in search of greener pastures; some retired early. By May 2021, 80% of pharmacies reported struggles to fill open positions. The most common vacancies were for pharmacy technicians and front end employees. Pharmacies did increase wages and benefits, but it has not been enough. There simply are not enough healthcare workers in the industry. By 2026, more than 6.5 million healthcare workers will leave, but only 2 million new workers will come in to fill their posts.
Simultaneous to the issues above is frustration with drug supply chains. From 2017 to 2020, drug shortages were the #1 issue facing hospital pharmacies. COVID-19 took that problem to new heights. In 2020, 86% of hospital pharmacists reported increased drug shortages due to the pandemic. 62% are facing shortages of more than 10 vital drugs. Many of these drugs are either lifesaving or necessary for surgery, like albuterol inhalers and anesthetics. Almost all pharmacies have needed to change the structure of their supply chain to account for these difficulties. Switching costs drive up prices while slowing down the hectic workflow central pharmacies keep.
Pharmacy automation technology promises to alleviate most of these burdens. There are numerous opportunities for automation within a central pharmacy. Automated dispensing cabinets could be nearly 6 times as efficient at picking medications while costing a third less than a pharmacy technician. Inventory tracking can help pharmacies dispense medications on a first in, first out basis, thereby reducing the amount of inventory that expires. Right now, 16% of hospital pharmaceutical inventory is wasted due to not being used before its expiration date. Inventory management also allows the pharmacy to locate and dispose of recalled lots faster. Currently, drug recalls can take up to 10 staff hours to address. Other opportunities for automation include controlled substance tracking, pill sorting, counting, and packaging, and drug interaction/allergy checks.
4 in 10 hospital pharmacists already consider operational technology critical for success. Given the demands imposed by the pandemic and the lack of other resolutions presented to the staffing shortage, more hospital pharmacists will come to that position soon. By 2024, the global market for pharmacy automation systems will reach nearly $8 billion.