Digital apothecary: What is the future of pharmacies?

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In ancient times, apothecaries sourced plants and simpler chemical ingredients in the countryside to prepare medicinal potions in a very personalized way. A Pharmacist had to collect it from the source, compound it manually, and dispense it.

Things have evolved since then to a vast extent, and pharmacists have moved away from compounding in situ, which was once the essence of a pharmacist. Over the past many decades, pharmacies have mostly been commoditized and absorbed by large retail companies.

Technology and digital healthcare are truly bringing doctors, pharmacists, and patients closer, saving both time and effort and improving people’s health. In this article, we would reflect on the path of the digital apothecaries and how the diagnosis, treatment, and drug delivery is evolving to serve the patients better and ultimately improve our health.

Will robots replace pharmacies in the future?

Using technology has benefits to both patients and healthcare providers. It’s the dawn of Smart devices, like smartphones and watches, which can use inbuilt artificial intelligence in the form of an app to notify patients to get refills in a timely way. They also provide them with information related to medication in an easy-to-understand manner. 

Bioelectrical signals in smartwatches provide constant health monitoring, and they can alert a patient’s doctor and emergency medical services in case of an emergency. One such example is, app developers have been especially focused on epilepsy patients. Some smartwatches utilize integrated bioelectric scanners and built-in accelerometers to notify caregivers and record when seizures occur.

Robots in pharmacy have already started working for many pharmacy chains. For example, the cumbersome job of counting pills, filling, and labeling can be done readily with the help of efficient robotic machines. This saves a lot of valuable time for a pharmacist. Also, issues relating to overseeing and managing software, other administrative duties can be handled by robots. Even inventory management would be the next task.

Robots might be used to help with following up on patients’ metrics, including vaccination status and medication adherence. They’ll also be important in helping identify patients who need pharmacist intervention. Other ways they’ll help is by playing a role in auditing and assisting in regulatory compliance.

It’s an important role in ensuring that pharmacies are within the quality metrics. That’s especially important for pharmacies that work with 340-B accredited organizations.

Will pharmaceutical booths and pharma drones become the norm?

Pharma drones will be useful in pharmacy by helping with modernizing how medical deliveries are done. Very shortly, they will have the potential to enable large-scale deliveries of medical samples, long-tail medicines, as well as blood. Drones have the potential to modify the pharmaceutical supply chain. In 2019, UPS signed an agreement with CVS to bring drug delivery to a new level.

In Rwanda, Africa since 2015 they use drones to deliver medicines to faraway areas and have been successfully doing so. Even other developing countries like India also adapting such changes locally in remote areas of desert or mountains.

So now, it’s possible for distant rural areas to get a regular supply of medicine and /or vaccine with not much difficulty. The pandemic has created a new urgency to closing these gaps in the field of medicine and drones have the capability to provide supplies of important medical items on time regardless of the location.

Another noteworthy example has been China. The government piloted ways to include drones in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It can act as an example for other countries to respond to different healthcare problems. The drones have been used for: transportation of samples, drone delivery of medications, aerial spray, and disinfection.

Pharmaceutical booths might also be an efficient way to educate healthcare providers about pharmaceutical companies’ products and pipelines.

They’re basically like medical kiosks that provide pharmaceutical services. Patients can walk in, have a normal health check, and consult with healthcare professionals through telecommunication. In 2015 in a joint venture of rite aid and Cleveland clinic, Healthspot, a telemedicine kiosk startup that 2015 despite raising over $40 million, could not succeed.

Now again, in March 2019, after improving from the errors of Healthspot, Tampa General has come up with a fully functional health kiosk named Onmed, which opened at the food court of the academic medical center, Tampa, Fl. Also, one more French company H4D has opened a health kiosk, which USFDA approves.

In China, insurer Ping-An Good doctor introduced health booths with some success. However, the main challenge would be for pharmacies to consider investing in the kiosks because patients can already access most of the technology used through their phones.

How will telehealth shape the future of pharmacy?

Community pharmacists have several duties, including collecting and assessing data from their patients for various diagnostic measures. The information is used for immunization administration, chronic disease state education, medication therapy management, and health screenings. 

Telehealth is transforming pharmacy practice. One of the many ways community pharmacy practice can be transformed is through the Pharmacist e-Care Plan. Post covid many pharmaceutical or other companies have started investing in creating a functional virtual health care setup.

For example, a patient with minor cold/cough/acidity symptoms used to visit a pharmacy and get advice from a pharmacist can be advised sitting at home via this registered virtual health care system.

Telehealth systems can be used in the pharmacy school curriculum to teach pharmacy students how to provide efficient patient care services in the community. It makes it possible for patients who are in rural areas to meet with pharmacists and pharmacy students through live-video feeds over their phones.

Remote pharmacists are connected to rural hospitals. They review a patient’s electronic medical history before they allow medical staff to dispense medications.

Will drugs be 3D printed?

3D-printed drugs are now going to become a reality. Aprecia Pharmaceutical came up with one such drug named SPRITAM – a medicine to treat epilepsy, which got USFDA approval 5 years back to print and produces this particular 3D drug.

The incredible technology can fabricate many shapes for any drug. It involves placing raw materials in a printer, and it manufactures an object with the recommended dose without changing its characteristics. Of course, some changes can occur, but mostly the changes are to improve the medicines. For example, 3D printing leads to a more effective absorption process. All these steps are thoroughly under trial and approval by USFDA.

According to research, the body absorbs pyramid-shaped pills much faster, while cylindrical ones take more time. The selection of oddly shaped pills modifies the surface in contact with water, which changes the drug release.

To wrap up

Pharmacy is a dynamic and ever-growing field. There have been significant changes, and still, more changes are being introduced. Most of the changes being made are highly beneficial to both patients and pharmacists.

A pharmacist is one of the pillars of the health care system and technology should be designed to expand in a multifold way his reach towards achieving one common goal: Community health care.

The future of digital apothecaries is certainly bright, with most of the improvements, including robots, 3D printing of medications, smart pills, and telehealth, working well so far. However, pharmaceutical booths still appear unsuccessful but might actually change the way medicine will be delivered in the future.

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