Time-saving dispensary hack

Automation provides benefits, but it can also intensify any flaws in a pharmacy department’s systems and processes. That’s one of the reasons to get the basics in order before introducing major changes like robotics, writes Andrew Stewart and Michael Ryan of PharmConsult. In the first of a two-part series, they explain a high-impact improvement you can make to your pharmacy department, even if automation is not being considered at this stage.

Pareto’s principle, otherwise known as the 80/20 rule, states that roughly 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.1 The principle has been applied to numerous settings and industries, including pharmacy.

In our work in public and private hospital pharmacy departments, we have found that about 20% of the products account for about 80% of the volume.

Fun fact:

Pareto’s principle has its roots in Italy, where economist Vilfredo Pareto observed in 1896 that 80% of land belonged to 20% of the population.1

We have found that the people tasked with picking and labelling medications spend more than 50% of their time walking to the storage area and about 15% of their time looking for the product. This means that the way the pharmacy department is laid out may force pharmacists and technicians to spend a lot of time walking instead of on more productive activities, including those that will have a direct impact on medication safety and improved patient outcomes.

One reason for this inefficiency is that products have traditionally been arranged alphabetically in storage areas rather than according to the frequency of demand, which is a more effective way of storing product.

Many modern community pharmacies have solved this problem by storing the most commonly dispensed medications a step or two away from where the pharmacist or technician is dispensing.

Moreover, what makes this concept even more attractive is that you don’t need to introduce radical changes to achieve tangible improvements.

Achieve a quick win with the 80/20 rule

Organising products according to demand levels can significantly speed up the dispensing process, which frees up staff to spend time more productively.

Here’s a four-step process you can follow to work out which products to place closest to those who are dispensing:


  • Calculate: use your hospital’s dispensing data to rank each product according to the frequency of use. One per cent of your stock is likely to make up about 25% of your dispensing volume.
  • Segment: divide stock into Fast, Medium and Slow movers based on how many times a week an item is used or ordered.
  • Plan: Look at your pharmacy department’s layout and figure out how you can position products so that those used most frequently are closest to those dispensing – ideally a step or two away.
  • Test and learn: You don’t need to start big. One small way to introduce this change is to start with your top five products and reposition them within arms’ reach of each of the dispensing stations in the dispensary. Based on the outcome, you can then move on to the next five most commonly used products and so on.

Note: You might need to ask for help to figure out how to make minor changes to your computerised inventory management system to enable picking instructions to accommodate your changes. Later enhancements such as barcode scanning and real-time electronic and paperless systems will further improve productivity as will automated picking.

Your department will be significantly more efficient if you take the time to reorganise your stock. As a result, medicines will reach patients faster, discharges will be quicker, and pharmacists will be able to spend more time focusing on patients and their medication.

Fun fact:

By going through this process, you will probably find that your department’s throughput roughly matches Pareto’s principle – 20% of your stock accounts for 80% of your throughput and the slowest moving 50% of products equal only 5% of demand.

Take away messages

  • About 20% of dispensary products account for about 80% of volume.
  • Pharmacy departments that organise their products according to demand levels may significantly speed up the dispensing processs.
  1. Clinical Excellence Commission, NSW. Pareto charts & the 80/20 rule. Available at: http://www.cec.health.nsw.gov.au/quality-improvement/improvement-academy/quality-improvement-tools/pareto-charts (Accessed 15/10/2019)

*This article was first published at the Hive on 29 October 2019. https://my.interact.technology/interact/#/login