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VIDEO: Pharmacy Direct deploys automated help

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 24 May 2024

Since introducing its Riedl automated medicine dispensing system, Pharmacy Direct (PD) has reduced the time taken for chronic meds to reach customers, from five to seven days, to one to two days.

This was revealed during a recent media tour at its Zwartkop headquarters in Centurion.

Founded in 2004, Pharmacy Direct is a subsidiary of JSE-listed group AfroCentric, deliveringprescribed chronic medication to private individuals, medical aid members and beneficiaries of public healthcare sector programmes.

The company distributes chronic medication to 1.2 million of its 3.9 million customer base.

In 2021, PD decided to introduce robotic systems, including Riedl, as part of its medication management processes.

The robots utilise advanced algorithms and precision engineering to dispense medications accurately and efficiently, significantly reducing the risk of medication errors, optimising the storage of medication, improving productivity and reducing the time from script received to receipt of medication, it says.

Through this modernisation effort, the company now processes 180 000 prescriptions a month (on average 9 000 a day) in the private division, with the capability to process up to 16 000 scripts a day, said Ansie van der Merwe, PD principal pharmacist and GM of operations.

According to Van der Merwe, PD is one of the largest distributors of HIV medication in the country, and also distributes specialised medication. “We are a growing business. However, the challenge for us is to not get stuck in the 2000s but move with the times.”

Pharmacy Direct would not divulge exactly how much was spent on the automated system, sourced from Europe, with MD Billy Mokale saying only that it’s a multimillion-rand investment. “It’s a good investment,” he added.

Van der Merwe explained the improvements to the business since the system was introduced: “Our prescription throughput time has been halved, so it’s twice as fast. The total prescription processing time is now within two days, where it was five to seven days before. It is more than 50% improved.”

Mokale noted: “This plays a major role in terms of the contracts that we have. If you have a contract that says delivery needs to be made within five to seven days, we are now not afraid to commit to delivery within 48 hours. There are a lot of efficiencies that have been brought by the automation.”

Some of Pharmacy Direct’s staff members at the Zwartkop headquarters.
Some of Pharmacy Direct’s staff members at the Zwartkop headquarters.

While there is the automated dispensing element to its operations, the pharmaceutical company still relies on its 385-strong staff contingent, made up of pharmacists, pharmacist assistants, administrative and operational staff members, as well as an in-house courier service.

At its Zwartkop headquarters, it has 96 pharmacists and assistants that handle the prescriptions. It also has a call centre of 60 agents, who deal with customer queries and complaints.

Mokale commented: “Robots do what robots do well, but human beings will always have the final touch. Our professionals make sure every single parcel that leaves the conveyer belts are correct meds, as per the scripts and not expired medication. You will always need that human touch; it’s a hybrid between machine and the human touch.

“We haven’t arrived at a point where we see this automation will result in staff layoffs, especially with our clinicians and driver service.”

Van der Merwe added that bringing in the robotics and automation system took four years of planning, and the company used this time to determine what will be done by the robots and by staff members.

“We are very proud that the implementation of the robots hasn’t resulted in loss of jobs.”

Pharmacy Direct has faced complaints in the past, with some customers taking to online review platform Hello Peter to air their grievances, which tend to be about late delivery of chronic medication, poor communication, duplicate deliveries and other logistical issues.

Mokale acknowledged the company has faced challenges, saying some of these are a result of patients not updating their addresses on the system, the courier service not being able to reach the patient, or patients forgetting to update contact details.

The automated medicine dispensing system has been deployed at the Pharmacy Direct headquarters in Zwartkop, Centurion.
The automated medicine dispensing system has been deployed at the Pharmacy Direct headquarters in Zwartkop, Centurion.