It was, at best, a clunky introduction. A photo of Pope Francis wearing a white puffer jacket that turned out to be fake. Concerns by Hollywood actors and writers about its effect on their livelihoods. And the news that half of U.S. college students have used it to complete assignments or exams.

Such was the way many Americans were introduced to artificial intelligence (AI) and the tools that support it including ChatGPT, OpenAI and Google Bard. And to put it mildly, the introduction did not go so well, with Politico reporting in September 2023: “September has brought a bumper crop of polling results on artificial intelligence, and they show public views of the technology are dim and getting dimmer.” The polls found that people were concerned about the possibility of AI taking away their jobs, and about its implications for everything from election integrity to consumer protection to national defense.

These concerns though, belie the fact that artificial intelligence has been around for years, and is already widely used by Americans – although they may not know it. “Automated product recommendations on sites like Amazon, email spam filters, and software that chats with you on an airline website are examples of AI,” the Washington Post noted in an article discussing the public’s skepticism about the technology. Other examples include Amazon’s Alexa, Siri from Apple and the popular navigation app Waze.

According to McKinsey, artificial intelligence refers to “a machine’s ability to perform the cognitive functions we associate with human minds, such as perceiving, reasoning, learning, interacting with an environment, problem solving, and even exercising creativity.” Artificial intelligence is rooted in algorithms that are “trained” based on available data. An algorithm analyzes data to “detect patterns and learn how to make predictions and recommendations,” McKinsey notes, rather than receive specific programming instructions.

So, while headlines may have been quick to focus on the “technology-gone-awry” aspects of AI, the real story is the technology’s seemingly limitless implications for adding efficiency and solving problems across just about all realms of society.

Including pharmacies.

A few years ago, in 2018, the Harvard Business Review suggested three ways in which AI could help address key business needs: automating business processes, gaining insight through data analysis, and engaging with customers and employees.

Let’s consider how AI can help – and in some instances is already helping – pharmacies to improve performance in these critical areas.

Business Process Automation

  • Workflow Optimization. Pharmacies that have invested in software management solutions are likely already benefiting from high-level functionality that automates core workflows. This includes the PrimeRx software solution, which seamlessly manages the pharmacy’s prescription intake, dispensing, refills, inventory, and claims management functions, to name a few. With regard to refills, for example, the software intuitively identifies all eligible medications and moves them into the pharmacy queue. The software also detects patients who have allowed their medications to lapse, and generates a reminder that a refill is due. This high level of automation takes place with minimal staff involvement, thus allowing time for other matters.With AI, pharmacy workflows are poised for even greater efficiency, as processes become integrated to seamlessly accomplish tasks. An example presented in Pharmacy Times describes the impact AI might have on a fall flu vaccine clinic: “Traditionally,” the article notes, “pharmacists and techs have to juggle multiple tasks, such as administering vaccines, assessing patient eligibility, providing education on possible adverse effects, and meticulously documenting encounters for billing purposes, all while maintaining filling operations.”With AI though, everything changes.“Imagine a scenario,” the article continues, “in which patients are swiftly evaluated for vaccine eligibility using AI algorithms. Clinic schedules are optimized automatically, eliminating the need for manual appointment and scheduling tools. The encounter claim is auto-generated, saving time for pharmacists who only need to review and sign off on the final documentation.”As this one example illustrates, AI can have a significant effect in streamlining pharmacy processes, automating tasks, and improving patient outreach.
  • Claims Processing. Advanced technology has also relieved pharmacy staff of the tedious, labor-intensive task of claims submission and management. This is another area in which PrimeRx has been ahead of the curve, with its ability to automatically route a claim to the proper insurance company or other payer. The software keeps tabs on each claim, and will not “close” a record until the claim has been resolved.
  • Inventory Management. While technology-based solutions have long helped pharmacists manage inventory with automatic ordering and monitoring capabilities, AI will enable even more capabilities. Analysis published in Innovations in Pharmacy journal noted the role of AI in predicting a patient’s future drug needs, which in turn will help pharmacy managers make smarter purchasing decisions. The reporting cited AI company Blue Yonder, which developed a solution for a German retailer that has been able to predict, with 90% accuracy, the products the retailer will sell over a 30-day period.

Patient Engagement/Patient Outcomes

  • Medication Management. An article in Pharmacy Times cited AI’s potential role in medication management as “one of the most significant ways” the technology could change pharmacy practice. “AI can assist pharmacists in managing their medication inventory, predict medication demand, and identify potential drug interactions and adverse reactions.” A separate Pharmacy Times article discussed how AI could help with medication affordability by researching “all the non-preferred drugs available to customers via their pharmacy benefit.” In the current environment, the article noted, there simply isn’t time for pharmacists to conduct these types of assessments.
  • Emails/Texts. Many pharmacies already take advantage of automated email and text, which utilize AI-based capabilities. Pharmacies are able to program their technology systems to generate an email or text every time a medication needs to be refilled, or when a pickup is ready. Pharmacies can also rely on algorithms to identify groups of patients with similar characteristics, who would benefit from related information. Patients with diabetes, for example, would appreciate receiving a link to a relevant article. Or, patients who would benefit from a specific vaccine could be notified about an upcoming immunization clinic, and include a link for easy scheduling.
  • Patient Monitoring. A critical benefit of AI will be the ability of pharmacists to have greater visibility into a patient’s health and treatment plans, and the ability to engage with other members of the care team. With AI, pharmacists have an unprecedented level of insight into patient health, and access to information for making informed decisions about medications and treatment plans.

Data Analysis

  • Medication Adherence. AI can be a powerful tool in helping pharmacists address the critical issue of medication non-adherence. As described by Pharmacy Times, “by analyzing patient data, including prescription records and refill patterns, AI can identify usage patterns and indicate individuals at higher risk of non-adherence.” Pharmacists can use this information to guide discussions with patients about the importance of adherence.
  • Revenue Opportunities. As already mentioned, AI can be very helpful in identifying groups of patients who would benefit from certain immunizations – immunizations which could be offered at the pharmacy. Beyond that, pharmacies can rely on AI to identify needs for additional clinical services. Patients with chronic hypertension, for example, would be identified as likely candidates for a blood pressure clinic, while smokers would be steered to a smoking cessation offering, and overweight patients would receive information about a diet/wellness program.

Artificial intelligence is already establishing itself as the “next big thing” in helping pharmacies attain greater levels of efficiency and patient care. But as exciting and beneficial as the solutions discussed in this article certainly are, they likely represent the formative stages of AI capabilities. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that pharmacists would never have believed that technology could automate the dispensing process.

Technology will continue to evolve and become increasingly more AI-inclusive. As it does, pharmacists can count on PrimeRx to lead the way with new and exciting solutions to improve efficiency, and make it easier to serve patients.