The Starbucks of Pharmacies?

An innovative startup thinks technology can make you actually enjoy going to the drugstore.

Sadie Christianson graduated from pharmacy school in 2001, but her first job hardly felt like the 21st century. The regional pharmacy chain she joined in Minneapolis hadn't implemented any technology to automate procedures, and Christianson spent much of her day standing at an elevated counter, counting out pills and double-checking her assistants' work for accuracy. "It was like you got out into the pharmacy world and you stepped back 25 years," Christianson says.

A year ago, she took a job with PrairieStone Pharmacy, a Minneapolis-area startup. Now she works with automated devices that dispense the most often-prescribed drugs for her, and a rigid system of bar-code scanning helps assure her that her technicians' work is accurate. Most of her pharmacy's drugs are stored in a high-tech vertical storage unit rather than on rows upon rows of shelves, meaning the pharmacy is much smaller, so she's never more than a step away from her customers. Between the small space and the time freed up by PrairieStone's automation, "I have at least a 100% increase in my interactions with customers," she says.

As customer experiences go, a trip to the pharmacy is not exactly a richly satisfying one. A clerk avoids you as you try to get the attention of a harried pharmacist. You wait an inexplicable 20 minutes for a prepackaged antibiotic to be slipped into a bag. Christianson's employer is trying to remedy all of that. PrairieStone's finely tuned system uses automation in a particularly sophisticated way — not merely to cut costs or speed up processes, but to free workers from the routine parts of their jobs so they can offer their highest and best contributions. "[PrairieStone's model] is the dream of what people want to practice," says Deborah Faucette, director of pharmacy operations for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores Foundation. "This is the picture that everybody would envision, with everything they need to really help them do their job."

That's exactly what PrairieStone cofounder Lewis Zeidner says he and his partners wanted to create. "We wanted to free clinicians up to be clinicians," says Zeidner. "You pay $100,000 for a well-trained pharmacist to spend six years in school studying how to best educate people about use of chemicals, and you have them counting by five?" With widespread shortages of pharmacists — and as the aging population and Medicare drug-law changes put increasing pressures on the system — solving that conundrum with smart technology is becoming all the more crucial.

Zeidner and his partners, Marvin Richardson and John Brady, opened their first outlet just one year ago. It's one of more than a dozen locations inside Lund Food Holdings, a chain of upscale Twin Cities supermarkets. (PrairieStone expects to have a total of 20 to 25 outlets by year-end.) PrairieStone's technology lets its pharmacies squeeze into just 400 square feet (compared to 1,000 for a traditional version), and that's a big draw, says John Pazahanick, a senior vice president at Lund. But he also says the efficient system frees the pharmacist to come out from behind the counter and drive sales of over-the-counter products. Those benefits have attracted serious inquiries from about a half-dozen local and national retailers. "I've compared [PrairieStone] to Starbucks," says Chris Thomsen, a pharmacy technology consultant. Besides focusing on the customer experience, he says, "it's an efficient model that can be replicated over and over again."

One giant that has spotted PrairieStone's potential is Best Buy, of all places. In an odd yet innovative effort to reach time-strapped, health-conscious women, the consumer-electronics chain has launched a concept store dubbed Eq-Life that combines high-tech gadgets and health-and-wellness goods. Mike Marolt, who heads the effort, selected PrairieStone for its in-store pharmacy after looking at more than 20 companies. "I liked the progressive way [PrairieStone] was thinking through their approach," he says.

Most PrairieStone locations look remarkably drug-free — you see no more bottles and vials than might fill a very large medicine cabinet. And yet PrairieStone stocks around 2,000 drugs, more than in an average pharmacy. That's because most of them — about 1,800 less frequently used items — are tucked away in a 14-foot-high carousel that extends into the ceiling behind the pharmacy wall. Besides the compact floor plan, another key to PrairieStone's system is workflow software it uses for accuracy. Because packaging for different strengths of the same drug often looks identical, "this has already saved me [from errors]," says Christianson.

Most pharmacies have added some elements of automation. But Thomsen says few, if any, have designed a system that's as integrated or efficiently organized. "What's so unique about [PrairieStone] is they utilize the technology in a continuous path, so that every single prescription goes through numerous checks," he says. "It really is a model of efficiency."

PrairieStone is continuing to expand on its technology. This month, it will become the first U.S. chain pharmacy to offer automated multidose packaging for seniors who take many medicines. A machine designed by AutoMed, the same company that designed all of PrairieStone's automation, organizes and dispenses drugs into a sleeve of sealed plastic packets. Each packet is printed with the meal or time of day when the patient is supposed to take the contents. The technology has long been implemented for nursing-home patients, but pharmacies have been slow to adopt it for retail customers.

In coming months, PrairieStone will roll out two more innovative devices that should only free up pharmacists more. Customers will be able to avoid lines by using an ATM-like kiosk to receive refills. Eventually, another kiosk will dispense new prescriptions even when a pharmacist isn't present. A pharmacist at a remote 24-hour location will pop up on a screen and consult with the patient before a machine dispenses the drugs. (Such devices have to be approved by state pharmacy boards.)

Where will all this technology lead? "The end goal is that there are no manual processes involved," says cofounder Brady, so that the pharmacist becomes an "absolute consultant." That arrangement would suit PrairieStone pharmacist Tricia North just fine. "You enjoy going to work when you can talk to people and laugh with people instead of standing there by yourself looking at the counter counting pills. It's a world of difference."

Jena McGregor is Fast Company's associate editor.

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