Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. is turning to robots to ease workloads at drugstores as it grapples with a nationwide shortage of pharmacists and pharmacist technicians.
The nation’s second-largest pharmacy chain is setting up a network of automated, centralized drug-filling centers that could fill a city block. Rows of yellow robotic arms bend and rotate as they sort and bottle multicolored pills, sending them down conveyor belts. The company says the setup cuts pharmacist workloads by at least 25% and will save Walgreens /zigman2/quotes/203410933/composite WBA +0.15% more than $1 billion a year.
The ultimate goal: give pharmacists more time to provide medical services such as vaccinations, patient outreach and prescribing of some medications. Those services are a relatively new and growing revenue stream for drugstores, which are increasingly able to bill insurers for some clinical services.
“This frees up the capacity of our most skilled professionals,” said Rina Shah, a group vice president overseeing pharmacy strategy at Walgreens. “We looked at our system and said, ‘Why are we filling prescriptions the way we did in 1995?’”
COVID-19 increased the demands on pharmacies as they expanded into testing and vaccinations, putting pressure on staff and creating a shortfall of pharmacists that many chains have struggled to fill. Walgreens has reduced pharmacy hours at a third of its nearly 9,000 U.S. stores, and in some markets is offering signing bonuses of up to $75,000 to fill pharmacist jobs.
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