Tips on improving efficiency from a Six Sigma expert
Filling prescriptions in an efficient, timely manner is vital to both serving your patients and lowering the operating costs of running your pharmacy. But pharmacy efficiency is becoming even more important as industry-wide issues — such as the rise of preferred networks, quality ratings and healthcare reform — continue to put pressure on your business. As prescription dispensing becomes more commoditized and healthcare plans move toward performance metrics, you need to gain efficiencies and lower your cost of dispensing in order to maintain access to patients through limited and preferred contracts.
What advice would a Six Sigma expert offer on how to improve the efficiency of your pharmacy?
Six Sigma is a well-known method for process improvement to achieve measureable and quantifiable financial returns. Master Black Belts are among the foremost experts on Six Sigma. Philip Doll, a Six Sigma Master Black Belt, is the Director of Business Process for McKesson U.S. Pharmaceutical. He has operational and financial responsibility for process improvement projects for McKesson’s distribution network. Doll has more than 25 years of experience and has managed over 300 projects.
Doll recently shared ideas on five opportunities for pharmacy owners to improve operational efficiencies.
- Measure. If you don’t measure your workflow, how will you know if your pharmacy is making progress at improving the process and the results from it? Start by identifying and deﬁning exactly what you want to measure. Establishing a good performance “baseline” (the starting point) will help you determine the impact of all future improvements.Once metrics and goals are in place, hold staff accountable for performance. Many pharmacies measure accuracy, but why not productivity? Measuring scripts per hour can be the start of recognizing best practices. Also, metrics help your staff act based on facts and eliminate making decisions based on poor information or personal bias.
- Inventory. Having too much or too little inventory is a problem. Too much inventory ties up working capital and valuable shelf space, while too little can result in stock-outs, customer complaints, and lost sales.Tips for effectively managing pharmaceutical inventory include utilizing perpetual-inventory systems or creating manual reorder points. Identify your fastest-moving items and consider checking the reorder points daily. Generally, less safety stock is needed for high-volume items that are being ordered frequently. Slower-moving items can be checked less frequently, but there should be more safety stock on hand.The National Community Pharmacy Association provides a few additional tips:
- Review inventory levels every quarter to adjust for seasonal dispensing trends in your community.
- Assign and incent technicians to manage a pharmacy bay for slow movers and short or outdated drugs and return them to manufacturers promptly to free up cash.
- Don’t be afraid to ask the patient to assist you in keeping expensive and rarely used drugs off your shelves (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis or HIV therapy). One pharmacist enlisted her patient to remind her one week before refills were due so the medications could be ordered. Be creative; sometimes a good patient–pharmacist relationship is all it takes to help manage the inventory.
- Motion. Think small. Do you know how many steps your pharmacists and technicians walk each day in your pharmacy? Consider mapping the travel of a technician ﬁlling a script. Does he have to leave his workstation to complete the order? Does the pharmacist/technician have all of the necessary tools in her workstation to complete the task? Just because you have space doesn’t mean that you need to use it all and spread the work around. To improve operational efficiency try moving the work closer to the worker. By bringing the work closer to the worker you can eliminate wasteful travel time and improve productivity, while also improving employee satisfaction.
- “Automate.” Many companies have designed outstanding technologies to aid pharmacists and technicians in the prescription-filling process. Depending on the your goals, automation can be used to free up pharmacist time for other patient care activities, to reduce service rates, or to maintain service rates without adding staff. While efficient and fast, these technologies can come with a price tag. If you’re not ready to make the investment, consider replicating some of what automation does by rethinking your setup and work processes. For example, create high-volume pick stations that enable technicians to rapidly ﬁll scripts without having to leave their workstations. Place the fastest-moving drugs near the worker to reduce travel time and motion.
- Brainpower. Your staff can be the best source for new ideas and suggestions. Invite pharmacy staff members to step back and observe all of your pharmacy’s key processes. Do they see bottlenecks, unnecessary travel, or issues causing delays in the process? Opportunities for improvement? Have them record their observations and report their ﬁndings to the team. Have staff brainstorm ideas on how to reduce steps, eliminate bottlenecks and improve the order ﬂow.
None of these ideas are magic solutions. But each tip will help increase your pharmacy’s capacity, improve efficiency and productivity, and ultimately improve your bottom line.
Share your thoughts on steps you have taken to improve your pharmacy’s operations and efficiency. What has worked best for you?