To the pharmacy business, the future looks like a prescription for disaster: In 2001, U.S. pharmacists filled 3 billion prescriptions. By 2005, that number will increase to 4 billion. But the industry suffers from a shortage of pharmacists: Applications to pharmacy schools have dropped nearly 30% since 1994. And the problems are adding up: Too few pharmacists plus too many prescriptions means that 4 out of every 100 prescriptions are now improperly filled.
But there is a remedy: The pharmacy of the future has been open for over a year, filling prescriptions out of a two-story, 280,000-square-foot former Boscov's department store located 30 minutes outside Philadelphia. Owned and operated by Medco Health Solutions Inc., a $29 billion health-care services business and a subsidiary of Merck, the Willingboro Prescription Dispensing Center is the world's largest and most advanced high-tech pharmacy.
"We go through pills in the millions here," says Calvin Wasdyke, director of the pharmacy at Willingboro. Wasdyke is to the facility's medicine bottles what the secretary of the treasury is to the U.S. Mint: Every prescription bottle that leaves the place bears his name — that's more than 20 million bottles since the center opened in 2001.
The advanced technology in the center makes it possible for about 140 pharmacists and pharmacy technicians to run the facility. Every two weeks, some 1,900 of the country's most requested medications arrive at Willingboro. The shipments are then repackaged in 4-liter bottles and taken to an automated counting room. From there, they are fed into 1,920 separate dispensing tubes located one floor above the factory. As the bottles move along a conveyor belt, the dispensing tubes drop the right medication into the right bottle — all of it managed by a sophisticated computer system.
On-site, the operation is an impressive display of technology in motion. It takes one prescription bottle at least 45 minutes to make the journey through the automated dispensing-and-delivery process. For about half of the medications dispensed, the process is almost entirely automated: The computer system electronically labels and loads the bottles. It spits out drugs in one swift movement. It caps bottles at a predetermined torque: not too tight for an elderly person to twist off, but tight enough to stay securely closed in the mail. The facility also sorts, packs, and ships orders — so efficiently that 99% of all prescriptions are shipped on the same day they are received.
"We always talk about how many bottles we can fill," says Wasdyke. "But in many ways, it's a very slow, controlled process." During the dispensing process, each prescription passes through at least 100 control checkpoints.
Out on the factory floor, pharmacists and technicians monitor the process. Staff pharmacist Oren Schaham leans over a magnifying glass and inspects a handful of tablets at a quality-assurance station. Later, he explains that he found a tiny piece of cellophane in the sample. "We're looking at everything as if there were something wrong with it," says Schaham. "It's easy to get caught up in the technology of it all, but my job is to remember that every bottle is still opened by a human hand."
A version of this article appeared in the February 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.