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Sunday, October 04, 2009

I've been wondering lately if retail pharmacy is dead or at least ready for some major triage.

It's not that the local pharmacy is going to go the way of the dinosaur. Pharmacies will never disappear. But I do think they are going to evolve into a different "animal" than what we see on the corner now. I say that because of the different circumstances faced by the retail druggist than existed even just five years ago.

In January of 2006 millions of elderly Americans began prescription coverage with Medicare Part D. This was not only a boon for seniors; it brought increased foot traffic into drug stores. The volume of prescriptions filled sky-rocketed. Then a couple of years later Wal*Mart brought its own brand of insurance reform by instituting their list of $4 medications. In an industry not known for creativity this was an earthquake high on the Richter scale of business practices. It brought price point back to prescription drugs, competition where none had existed for years. "Me-too'ism" crept in and soon Target and Rite Aid and CVS and everybody else soon had some version to compete with Wal*Mart. More foot traffic. More volume. More prescriptions than could be filled quickly and safely.

Back before the days of Medicare Part D we routinely told our customers that we could have their prescriptions filled for them in under fifteen or even ten minutes. Now we doubt very much if we can fill anything in much less than forty-five minutes. We may say "a half hour" but we really mean "we're going to hope for less than an hour unless we get some insurance problems which really is a given anyway."

Can we keep traveling on this road? As baby boomers age the numbers are going to go up astronomically. Things are going to have to change. Something has got to give.

Robots might be introduced. Rite Aid first got on board with robots back in the late '90's, but I see all drug stores eventually filling scripts with robots within the next ten years. Or five. This is one of the things retail stores must learn from mail order firms. You simply need a fast, efficient, and safe way to fill more than one prescription a minute and robots are the only way to do that. Although the public will balk at first they will eventually see that getting their prescriptions fast will be a nice trade-off to an unfamiliar system. And whether they know it or not the millions of people already receiving their medicines from a mail order company get their scripts processed by robots.

So the next time you wait an hour or two you might want to reconsider your aversion to mechanized pharmacy. Science fiction isn't just for trips to Mars. It might be as close as your corner drug store.

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