Prescription vending: a path to today’s health consumer?

September 21, 2011

Supermarkets with health clinics could potentially add prescription vending machines in most states. Should they consider this added convenience?

With 50 million Americans uninsured, the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics show, many lack access to primary care physicians or can’t afford such visits. When people need acute care, many wind up in hospital emergency departments or retail settings where they can speak with pharmacists or nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants or physicians in a store clinic setting.

By now, about three-quarters of U.S. supermarkets have pharmacies, up from about half a decade ago, according to the Food Marketing Institute. There are also about 1,200 retail-based clinics (primarily in drug stores) operating in 35 states and the nation’s capitol, says the Convenient Care Association. These clinics have grown sales by 81% to $733.4 million between 2005 and 2010, and are forecast to grow 19.3% annually to reach $1.7 billion by 2015, states research firm Kalorama Information.

It’s questionable how much of that growth will occur in supermarkets. Retail clinics are typically in stores alongside pharmacies that can fill prescriptions (CVS MinuteClinic, Walgreens Take Care), and the concept hasn’t lit a fire under grocers. “The concept is still novel, it still arouses some fears, but our research finds that the clinics are popular, particularly in drug store settings,” said Kalorama publisher Bruce Carlson in a prepared statement.

Now, a prescription vending machine called InstyMeds could potentially help supermarkets add convenience to their health-wellness image. Designed for physician dispensing at the point-of-care, these ATM-style units are in the lobbies of about 200 urgent care centers and hospital emergency departments in 34 states so far, none yet at retail. But, says marketing manager Emily Theisen, most states would allow them in stores with clinics where staffers writing prescriptions are on hand to answer questions. Retailers considering this should check first with their state board of pharmacy.

As long as patients could consult with a pharmacist about potential interactions (by phone to the InstyMeds call center) and security is addressed, The Lempert Report thinks vending could help patients gain quick access to their first dose of needed medications. Vending could also help supermarkets capture a higher share of prescription volume. Although practically every prescription-buying household shops within the food channel, about three-quarters fill their scripts elsewhere, Nielsen Homescan has reported.

Each machine has an acute medication formulary that can be tailored to the type of prescription orders at the site, including pain relievers, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, inhalers, steroids, antihistamines and more. “We recommend 50 different medications in different strengths. A machine holds 100 sleeves, about 10 doses per sleeve,” Theisen said, noting the retailer breakeven point is filling 10 scripts per day.   

To enable patients to obtain medicines from the machine, a medical provider writes an electronic prescription and gives the patient drug education materials and a unique identifier code. The patient enters the code and date of birth on the machine’s touch screen. After bar code safety checks and the processing of insurance and co-pays, the medicine is dispensed.

InstyMeds monitors inventory electronically in real-time and ships replenishments to keep units in stock. A restocker at retail would likely be a clinic worker.