As we’ve entered the third decade of the century, we’re all surrounded by technology. The world of pharmacy is no exception. Given the fast evolution of AI and robotics, the future pharmacy will likely be quite different from what we’re currently used to. In this piece, we discuss the exact technological developments for the pharmaceutical world. We will begin by discussing the future of retail pharmacy. Next, we will mention the evolvements for the clinical pharmacy of the future. Finally, we’ll help answer one of the hottest questions when it comes to AI in healthcare – namely, whether technology will ever substitute human expertise and work.

Let’s begin with a general overview of what the future pharmacy will look like.

Will the pharmacy of the future have room for human staff?

What will the future of pharmacy look like?

Due to technological advancement and overcoming a pandemic, it seems like the future of pharmacy will look very different from what it is now. The healthcare industry has already started implementing robots, AI, and other automation tools to help streamline the various processes and to improve patient care. Even though the industry has started leaning more towards technological solutions, it still hasn’t become mainstream. The demand for self-service pharmacies also increased especially with the 2020 COVID crisis, which affected the lives of many people. 

Precisely because of the increased use of technology, the human component will be even more important and crucial to excellent pharmacist-patient relationships. This means shifting the focus from filling prescriptions to interacting with patients and providing them with the full breadth of services that pharmacists are able to offer based on their individual educations. 

While not as well known as their other roles, pharmacists are able to provide health consultation services, as well as certain testing. Increasing the role that technology plays in everyday pharmacy services will allow pharmacists to step up to their full potential and roles in addressing their client’s needs. Without this increased dedication to the patient, their experience could be greatly impacted. 

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Future of retail pharmacy – how will it change?

In order to properly address the potential changes for the future of retail pharmacy, it’s important to note that there are two main types of retail pharmacies: brick and mortar stores, and self-service pharmacies. Both of these will be shaped by the implementation of technology and the impact of the recent COVID crisis. 

Self-serve pharmacies

When it comes to the future of retail pharmacy it’s crucial to mention self-serve pharmacies, which blend innovative technologies together with traditional pharmacy practices and are on the rise. Currently, patients are able to order their medications with a simple click and add to cart and have them shipped directly to their home. Other self-serve pharmacies offer the option to order OTC medications online and pick-up at a physical location that is convenient to the patient. 

In the future, however, self-serve pharmacies are more likely to become even more technologically advanced. This could look like patients being given a prescription by their doctor, often with a QR code, and then taking this to a participating self-service pharmacy. Some of these digitized pharmacies will operate via machines, read the QR code, and automatically dispense the corresponding medication. 

The benefit of this is that inventory will be automatically tracked by the corresponding machines. As a result, the packaging of medication will be done in a much faster timeframe. This, in turn, will be comforting to patients with more dire medical conditions or those who have unexpectedly run out of their medications. 

Let us not forget that such a solution will relieve pharmacists of a lot of manual work, allowing them to perform other activities like following up with patients, etc. We can clearly see that future pharmacy will be more focused on value-added activities related to patients, instead of admin tasks. 

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The future pharmacy will leverage self-serve machines

Health consultancies as a part of pharmacy service

Pharmacists currently spend very little time actually consulting their patients. This was already confirmed back in 2016 in an NIH study. Its findings demonstrated that pharmacists dedicated only 16.7% of their time to patient counseling. With new technological implementations, including updated software and automation, it’s likely that this percentage will greatly increase, making the future of pharmacy rather bright. 

By utilizing technology, the needs of patients can be better fulfilled and met. Currently, pharmacists spend most of their time with more administrative-type work, including talking to physicians about prescriptions, filling out paperwork, and actually filling the prescriptions. All of these tasks can be taken over by AI robots who can help pharmacists leverage their time better in order to keep the patient at the forefront. 

Many patients are unaware that for simple medical conditions and chronic conditions, pharmacists are able to consult just as well as a physician would. By automating much of the administrative work and other menial tasks, pharmacists can dedicate more time to building those relationships with their patients, and give medical advice that is personalized to the individual. 

Due to the increased use of technology, pharmacists would be able to do this not only when physically meeting with clients, but also via the phone or laptop. This allows for both brick-and-mortar, as well as digital pharmacies to improve their customer service and relationships with their patients, regardless of what type of pharmacy they work at or own. It can also increase their customer reach and improve access to healthcare tremendously, as not every patient lives within a drivable distance to a physical drug store.

So, what could this look like in the future from a pharmacist’s perspective? Instead of receiving a prescription, then calling the doctor to check in with them, pharmacists could simply receive everything via a message over a corresponding computer system or app, where the patient’s medical history is already noted. This saves a lot of time and streamlines the entire process. It also ensures that fewer mistakes are made, while also allowing the patient to ask the pharmacist more specific health-related questions.

With patients having closer relationships with their pharmacists, and pharmacists being able to consult their patients in the first place, patients are likely to receive much higher quality care, and their health could potentially be drastically improved. This will benefit both the pharmaceutical field as well as patients, and create more trust in the abilities of pharmacists.

With the above in mind, let’s now look at the predicted advancements in clinical pharmacy.

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Future of clinical pharmacy – will it be much different than now?

Outside of preparing an individual’s medications, pharmacists are trained for a wide range of different functions. While that may not be common knowledge, approximately 53% of U.S. pharmacists hold a Ph.D. in pharmacy. This means that they have the qualifications and knowledge to advise on the proper choice and administration of drugs. This also means that they can support (or even relieve) physicians of certain tasks related to medicine choice and administration. 

If we factor in the fact that pharmacies are likely to incorporate more technology into their operational and client practices, it’s very likely that more healthcare will be taking place in the comfort of the patient’s own home. 

In the future, pharmacists may also change the focus from treatment to prevention in order to empower their patients to become proactive in their own health. Pharmacists are able to encourage healthy behaviors and provide guidance in terms of prevention, help patients manage their existing conditions, as well as support them in their later years. 

Robotic automation in production process

Some hospitals have already implemented the use of robotics in order to better and more efficiently serve patients. Stanford Health Care is one of these hospitals. Their machines are able to store the various medications, as well as dispense and distribute them to individual patients in hospitals. Robotic automation can benefit the healthcare system by providing quality service in a very short period of time. Instead of pharmacists standing and counting each and every tablet, their time can be utilized better by consulting patients or advising medical staff.

Stanford Health Care as a great demonstration of the future of pharmacy
Source: Forbes

 What’s more, robots help healthcare institutions keep track of which medications are running low and need to be re-ordered. They can also provide quality data in terms of which medications are utilized the most. This kind of data can be critical to have and share with the other institutions, as it indicates which medical conditions are increasing. 

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AI-based analytics in research

Drug research has become more costly, as well as more time-consuming than ever before. According to a recently published article, ten pharmaceutical companies spend $80 billion per year on drug research and development. However, the study has uncovered a rather disturbing relevance. Namely, that – despite the constantly rising costs of medicine research – companies are developing fewer and fewer successful drugs. With a dire need for new treatments to be developed to help treat medical conditions that so far may not have a successful treatment option, it’s frustrating for those involved in the research process to see so many drugs fail in human trials. 

The introduction of AI (either in-house or through AI development services) is extremely promising as it can possibly reduce the development time greatly and produce better results. It may also come up with a larger variety of options. Many of the AI machines work by giving it the starting molecule and then the desired result of what that molecule would look and behave like if it were successfully treated by the drug. The path of how to get there is what the AI machine figures out. 

This could lead to more discoveries, a higher percentage of humans that successfully complete the clinical trials, and reduced side effects. It seems like many see the potential in AI, as more than $1 billion in funding has been raised for these AI-powered drug start-ups. Pharmaceutical companies are eager to support them and work together, as each of the 10 major companies has now partnered with one of these start-ups

A man vs. technology – do pharmacists have a future?

When considering what the pharmacy of the future will look like, one can’t help but wonder whether it will evolve into a battle between technology and human power. This, largely, is a question of whether so-called general AI (i.e., one that can exceed human intellect and capabilities) is possible. Here’s our take:

As promising and innovative as these newly developed AI-integrated technologies sound, they are no substitute for human-to-human interaction. Just because machines will take over some of the more administrative work, doesn’t mean the necessity for actual pharmacists has diminished. 

It simply means that the busy work has been delegated to robots and software. That allows pharmacists to put their education to good use, and help patients get the medical help they need. They are also able to make sure that the patient’s experience and customer care are excellent. Those are things that AI machines simply cannot, and aren’t likely to ever substitute

Regardless of whether a patient visits a physical pharmacy, or opts for the telehealth type pharmacy service, pharmacists will be available to advise, consult, and listen to the patient. 

As with most times when new technology is introduced to a certain industry or field, the transition and integration will most likely be the opposite of smooth when considering the pharmacy of the future. With such a fast-paced industry, it’s likely that AI-powered technology will simply disrupt current pharmaceutical practices in a way that may seem problematic to some. 

future of pharmacy

The future of pharmacy can be summarized as follows:

  • Pharmacists will be able to take on a role similar to a physician, and use AI to complement their consulting work. Pharmacists will be able to operate as care providers and advise patients on their medical conditions while delegating administrative tasks like the collection of medications to AI-powered machines. 
  • Innovative solutions could completely change retail pharmacies and offer patients additional options like same-day delivery which could be done by robots or driverless cars. Telehealth and dispensing machines could make pharmaceutical options more accessible to others. 
  • The way treatment of medical conditions is approached could shift from prioritizing digital therapeutics, as well as other more advanced technologies, in combination with the more traditional pharmaceutical solutions. 

With the turn to digital medicine, digital therapeutics are likely to accompany more traditional pharmaceutical treatments. Digital therapeutics are often categorized as behavior-changing, physiological, or drug-specific. They can operate as a helpful companion to existing treatment options and may become the first option for patients. 

As mentioned previously, turning to technology can greatly support pharmacists, and help them reprise their role as health experts and health consultants, versus someone who simply distributes and manages a patient’s medications. Pharmacists will be able to provide patients with help by advising what digital health product suits their needs and conditions best. This gives them the appropriate instructions and warnings, as well as explains how they can interpret their results. 

As with any changes being made in the medical field, regulations must allow them to happen and provide certain guidelines to adhere to. Currently, the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t implement technological solutions into its business model. Unlike what their typical roles and responsibilities are, pharmacists are exceptionally educated and capable of counseling and point-of-care testing. These abilities are underutilized as they mainly spend their time and effort counting the various medications, and handling paperwork. 

This doesn’t allow for pharmacists to truly positively impact their patients. It greatly decreases productivity and profitability, as well as can lead to some safety concerns. Regulators seem to be finding fault with the profit being made throughout the entire supply chain, which has grave consequences for the industry as a whole. 

The future of pharmacy – summary

As mentioned above, the pharmacy of the future will revolve more around spending time with patients. This will be attainable thanks to the introduction of various technological solutions. Not only will they allow for patient care to improve and for patient-pharmacist relationships to strengthen, but also for speeding up the drug research and medicine production process. While some may be concerned that this will reduce the necessity for human pharmacists, it truly does not operate as a substitution for human interaction but more so as a complement to it. 

Innovative technologies will continue to shape our lives, and when it comes to healthcare, they can provide huge benefits to patients, pharmacists, and physicians alike, making it a more effective industry as a whole. And let us not forget about the huge potential the future of pharmacy holds in terms of improving the general health of society. It will be exciting to see how the new AI-powered robots and software will disrupt the current system and improve it, one robot at a time.