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April 1, 2022

Walgreens' latest innovation: Robo-pharmacists?

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    Walgreens Boots Alliance is opening robot-powered micro-fulfillment centers to fill U.S. customers' prescriptions—a move the company hopes will allow pharmacists to take on other duties, including testing and treating medical conditions, Melissa Repko reports for CNBC.

    Walgreens opens robot-powered fulfillment centers

    According to Repko, Walgreens plans to open 22 robot-powered fulfillment centers that can fill thousands of prescriptions for customers who need medications to manage conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

    Walgreens says each robot can fill around 300 prescriptions every hour—roughly the same number filled in a day by a Walgreens pharmacy operating with a handful of staff members.

    Repko reports that Walgreens' plan was driven in part by market factors rapidly changing the pharmacy industry. Rick Fernandez, a regional health care director for Walgreens in the Dallas area, shared that the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the value of pharmacists, specifically how they could be used in ways other than filling prescriptions. For instance, demand for pharmacists increased amid the pandemic as hospitals and drugstores needed their expertise to administer Covid-19 tests and vaccines. 

    "It's kind of dreary to be filling scripts all day long," Fernandez said. "What we were hearing was pharmacy was more of an asset that people gave us credit for."

    Specifically, Walgreens CEO Roz Brewer said she wants to make health care the company's "growth engine." Under this plan, as much as 50% of Walgreens' prescription volume from stores could be filled through their automated centers by 2025, according to Rex Swords, who oversees the facilities as Walgreens' group president of centralized services, operations and planning. As a result, pharmacists should have more time to provide health care, Brewer said.

    "We're doing all of this work, so that the pharmacist has an easier job, so that they can get back to being front and center, building a relationship with that patient and interacting the way they were trained—the work that they love to do," Brewer added.

    How the robot-powered fulfillment centers operate

    Currently, Walgreens is operating a robot-powered center in Northlake, Texas, that offers a glimpse into the company's future, Repko reports. The facility is staffed by 220 workers, with several licensed pharmacists.

    Every day, the facility fills around 35,000 prescriptions. However, that number will eventually increase to as many as 100,000 a day, Swords said. Over the next three years, Walgreens said it plans to open a total of 22 facilities that serve more than 8,500 of the company's almost 9,000 stores.

    In this robot-powered center, prescriptions go through a highly automated assembly line. Specifically, a team of workers give so-called "robot pods" containers of pills, with each medication having its own designated cannister and pill counter. A robotic arm then picks up a labeled pill bottle and brings it up to the canister, which dispenses the pills. Before the pill bottle leaves the pod, the robot tops it with a lid.

    Once the prescriptions are packaged, they are transported by Roomba-like rolling robots to be sorted into plastic totes that go to the same pharmacy location.

    Throughout the process, according to Repko, there are numerous security and safety checks, including pharmacists who double-check the medications, automatic locks that kick in if a canister is in the wrong place, and zip ties on the totes that deliver the prescriptions to stores.

    In the Northlake facility, the robot pods currently dispense around 900 different medications. Roughly 30% of prescriptions prepared in the facility bypass the automated assembly line, Swords said, and workers must manually prepare these prescriptions, which include asthma inhalers, eye drops, and temperature-controlled medications. (Repko, CNBC, 3/30)

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