Staffing Shortages Aren’t Just a Business Problem, They’re a Patient Safety Threat

By Lani Bertrand

Since 2020, the healthcare industry has lost nearly half a million workers, exacerbating staffing shortages that existed prior to the start of the pandemic. One of the hardest-hit areas is the pharmacy. As of September 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected there would be 43,000 pharmacist and pharmacy technician job openings each year throughout the next decade.

Persistent staff shortages present patient safety risks

Pharmacies play a central role in patient care, storing, preparing, and delivering critical medications. A slowdown or breakdown in this important function can have wide-reaching implications, as medications are the primary method for treating patients inside and outside of healthcare facilities.

With less staff, tasks that are already difficult become harder, such as delivering, returning, and transferring medications. Heavier workloads, longer hours, and greater complexity create a perfect storm for error. These challenges can slow medication delivery, causing delays and impacting patient outcomes. Such delays can foster tension between pharmacy and nursing units, leading to poor communication and workarounds that can increase risk. To avoid delays, pharmacy professionals may rush to fill orders, which may cause them to skip steps, forget things, or make other errors that can cause patient harm. Over time, the continuing swirl of stressors can lead to burnout among pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, which can increase the likelihood of error even more. Plus, people start to lose sight of the reason why they entered the field in the first place, triggering them to leave their jobs—and further fueling the existing staffing shortage.

Medication errors were a concern before pharmacies were short staffed

Medication errors injure 1.5 million people in the United States each year. More than a quarter (26%) of hospital readmissions are tied to medications and considered potentially preventable. Forrester Research predicts that the labor shortages and turnover will result in provider medication errors doubling in 2022. And these numbers will only grow if we can’t find ways to ease the burden on pharmacists and technicians while simultaneously removing the opportunities for human error.

Short-term solutions can’t fix long-term problems

When an employee leaves their job, that person’s experience goes out the door with them. This can negatively impact efficiency, accuracy, and quality. There are also fewer experts available to recognize potential issues and course-correct before they result in harm.

To retain experienced employees, organizations are pursuing strategies like providing bonuses, increasing benefits, raising salaries, and allowing more flexible working hours. Although these can help, they are no longer the differentiators they once were. The same perks are being offered by many industries—many of them less stressful than healthcare. Health systems will need to offer these incentives just to remain competitive.

Efforts are also underway to obtain relief funding, with the goal of shoring up beleaguered health systems. Earlier this year, the American Hospital Association sent a four-page letter to Congress, requesting additional funding to support the strained healthcare workforce. However, even if it’s possible to use increased funds to hire more resources, simply adding more staff will not fundamentally fix the issues driving the shortage.

Elevating the role of the pharmacy through automation

Organizations need a multifaceted approach to effectively address persistent pharmacy staffing and medication safety challenges, and technology should underpin such a strategy. Using automated solutions can make medication management less prone to error while improving process efficiency and freeing staff to focus on tasks requiring human intervention.

The more time pharmacists spend time engaging in purposeful work that directly ties to clinical outcomes, the less likely they are to experience burnout. For example, with the right technology, directors of pharmacy can lead their teams and execute revenue-generating strategies instead of delivering medications and restocking shelves. Pharmacists can apply their clinical expertise to impact patient outcomes instead of counting medications and verifying orders. Pharmacy technicians can concentrate on situations that require focused attention instead of touching every medication that comes in and out of the pharmacy.

Technology can also extend the reach of a hospital or health system. According to the ASHP Foundation Pharmacy Forecast 2022, “health systems must invest in technology that can safely replace human input to provide consistent and efficient clinical care and allow health systems the opportunity to redeploy pharmacists into the community and impact population and public health.”

Robotic and data intelligence solutions can be especially useful

These technologies can help organizations minimize inefficient human interventions, maximize pharmacists’ clinical time, and reduce drug spend. For example, organizations can use them to:

  • Scan medication barcodes and place medications in cabinets or carts, reducing medication checks by up to 90%
  • Handle restocking, dispensing, and even repackaging tasks, limiting the chances of error associated with removing native manufacturer packaging
  • Help with inventory control, searching for available medications throughout a health system and ensuring those drugs end up at the right place at the right time
  • Cut waste by identifying medications that are about to expire and making sure they are dispensed before they must be disposed of

An automated approach may look different than before

The idea of automation in the pharmacy is not new. However, it has come a long way in recent years. Gone are the days when installing a new system meant hiring more full-time employees to manage the process. Organizations can now view automation as a service, by which equipment is optimized from the day it’s installed and continues to evolve, keeping up with a hospital’s unique needs as well as patient and industry trends. An intelligent infrastructure of devices, digital workflows, and analytics, powered by certified experts and the cloud, ensures the solution remains relevant and useful without requiring the health system to dedicate precious resources to keep the technology up to date.

Today’s pharmacy automation is supported by embedded intelligence that allows pharmacy leaders to leverage data analytics to optimize inventory and guide process improvement. Such a system can collect and analyze pharmacy data from across a health system to refine workflows, helping improve efficiency, reduce errors, and boost staff satisfaction. Benchmarking enables health systems to adopt best practices to provide better, more cost-effective care and limit the risk of human error. Pharmacy leaders can use this information to make informed decisions and implement actions to support medication supply chain efficiency.

A powerful answer to a complex problem

The labor shortage plaguing hospital pharmacies shows no signs of stopping, especially as workloads continue to grow. By automating pharmacy workflows and leveraging data analytics, an organization can improve efficiency, reduce error, and increase staff satisfaction, minimizing the risks of staffing shortages while enhancing the quality and safety of patient care.

Lani Bertrand is senior director of clinical consulting at Omnicell.