Rx for the PX

In 2008, more than 3.5 billion retail prescriptions were filled in the U.S., amounting to an average of 12 for every American, according to StateHealthFacts.org.

And according to 2003 figures compiled by the Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association, that year approximately 51 million prescription filling and handling errors occurred – some of them life-threatening.

Working hard to prevent many, if not all, of the errors that occur after filling a prescription are Shelton Louie, CEO of Vancouver-based GSL Solutions, Inc., his business partner, Steven Garrett, and local electronic manufacturing services firm, ControlTek.

To accomplish the goal of eliminating these potentially fatal errors, Louie and his partners focused on "the last ten feet" of the prescription filling process.

Traditionally, after a prescription is filled (now often by robots), the prescription must be manually stored (with other prescriptions for the same patient, if applicable) in a process called "bundling." Then the prescription is handed over to the patient – this is called "picking" or "will call."

Louie claimed his company is the only one that automatically verifies bundling and picking using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology – a wireless feature that has big and small pharmacies, as well as the U.S. Army, taking notice.

According to Louie, pharmacies that have installed his products, which use RFID technology to verify and automate prescriptions storage and tracking, have gone from having at least one bundling error per day to zero errors.

Real Time, All the Time     

Filled prescriptions are usually manually stored in bins, which pharmacy staff must rummage through for the right prescription once a customer shows up, Louie said. This labor-intensive visual search is where many prescription errors occur, according to Louie.

GSL Solutions' IntelliCab (the storage component) and IntelliTrak (the software component) act like a global positioning system to facilitate prescription tracking. The pharmacist places the prescription in a basket equipped with a unique RFID chip, then the prescription is scanned and associated with that particular basket. The basket containing the prescription is then placed in the cabinet. When a customer shows up, the pharmacist scans the customer's ID card, or types in the customer's name and the correct door on the cabinet lights up automatically.

Next, the pharmacist removes the correct basket and scans the RFID chip. If the customer ID and the chip match, the system will make a "chirping" sound. If they don't, the system sounds an alarm.

GSL claims that the system is very secure because no one can access the cabinet without authenticating his or her identity, thus making IntelliCab safe enough to store narcotics as well as standard prescriptions.

According to Louie, the IntelliCab system is a great improvement over GSL's original barcode-based system because the RFID chip sends out a constant signal, whereas a barcode is silent unless it is scanned.

Finding the Right Marketing Strategy          

One of GSL's earliest installations was at a Hi-School Pharmacy in Woodland in 2004. But Louie and Garrett soon realized that retail wasn't the best fit for their products – at least, initially.

"The retail market is very focused on cost and return on investment," Louie said.

While this may make sense for companies focused solely on bottom line investment, GSL's mission is more multi-layered, with products not only focused on cost-efficiency, but also on the ability to handle hundreds of thousands of prescriptions and to reduce bundling and picking errors to practically nil.

Realizing that some of the busiest pharmacies in the world are located on military bases, GSL decided to pursue a contract with the U.S. Army. After a four-year negotiation process, the Blanchfield Army Community Hospital (BACH) in Fort Campbell, Ky. became the first Federal Pharmacy installation of GSL IntelliCabs for prescription will-call in September 2008.

In a summary paper prepared by Lt. Col. Mark Krueger, chief of BACH's Department of Pharmacy, the hospital has seen several benefits by installing IntelliCabs:

  • Reduced prescription storage area from 440 square feet to 130 square feet.
  • Handled more than 30,000 prescriptions error-free in the first six weeks.
  • Shelved 600 prescriptions in about 15 minutes with only one employee, saving several hours daily.
  • 10 seconds to retrieve prescriptions with the GSL system instead of 50 seconds manually.
  • Improved patient and employee satisfaction.

In March, Fort Lewis near Tacoma became the second Army pilot project for GSL, with similar improvements in efficiency and accuracy. In November 2009, Kaiser Permanente on Mill Plain Blvd. also installed the IntelliCab system, which Louie said has been a "huge success."

Setting the Standard         

Having the IntelliCab and IntelliTrak systems installed at several Army bases and HMOs will "set a standard of practice that will affect retail best-known methods," enabling GSL to again concentrate on the retail market, Louie said.

Since 2004, GSL has had several installs with a major food chain and several independent pharmacies and is currently discussing pilot projects with several other major retailers, Louie said.

2009 marked the first year GSL Solutions was profitable, and Louie is eagerly looking forward to increased profits as his company's products are installed at additional Army bases, HMOs and retail pharmacies.

Andy LaFrazia, president of ControlTek, was also quick to point out that what was good news for GSL Solutions and ControlTek was good news for Southwest Washington.

"We buy a lot of components and parts – mostly from local distributors," LaFrazia said. "It will be an economic stimulus if GSL continues to grow."