Prescription for Success Speeds Pharmacy Service
By Douglas J. Gillert
National Guard Bureau
PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., Apr. 6, 1999 It borrowed many of its ideas for improving customer service from other business success stories. Now, the 45th Medical Group pharmacy here is reaping the benefits and customers couldn't be happier.
"I was surprised how soon my medicines were ready," said one happy customer, Thelma Ford.
"I have been using this facility for 10 years. The improvement is unbelievable -- friendly, fast!" said retired Air Force Maj. Ulrich Kaufmann.
"I find the systems in the pharmacy much more effective," added Dorothy Kranne."
Medical group commander Col. William S. Swindling guided the improvements that, in a short time, earned the pharmacy top honors from the Air Force chief of staff, defense secretary and even Vice President Al Gore. But for Swindling, himself a pharmacist, shrinking resources and increased demand made a strong case for improvement.
"Two years ago, we switched to a customer-service culture," Swindling said. "Not only was it the right way to do things, but it was dictated by a forced 24 percent cut in our staff." Today, the clinic staff is down from 360 to 300 toward an end strength of 279. Gone are an ambulance service and surgical clinic. Gone, too, is more than half the pharmacy staff. For prescription service, however, customers who used to wait more than 45 minutes now wait an average of only 12 minutes.
The improved pharmacy service comes in the face of an expanded customer base due to the closing of naval medical facilities in nearby Orlando. Today, some 46,000 active duty and retired beneficiaries get their prescriptions filled here, making the Patrick pharmacy one of the busiest in DoD.
"We went from filling 45,000 prescriptions a month to 70,000 per month literally overnight," said Master Sgt. Paul Lerch, pharmacy noncommissioned officer in charge.
But until changes were made, those customers weren't smiling much.
"In 1994, we had a customer base that was very unhappy," said Maj. Rafael Diaz, chief of pharmacy services. Improvements came. Congress funded a new pharmacy building adjacent to the primary care clinic. Then the borrowing from industry began.
"We put in multiple drive-through lanes and added pneumatic tubes, like banks use," Diaz said. "We posted a greeter at the front desk just like they have at Wal-Mart. We adapted an automated queuing system from Disney that guides customers to the right window."
They also divided the facility into three mini-pharmacies that operate independently to provide individualized service. Two express pharmacies handle customers with one or two prescriptions. There's even an express drive-through lane for these customers. The third pharmacy takes customers with three or more prescription items, and even though its drive-through lane is often the longest, it moves swiftly.
The Patrick pharmacy works like clockwork because it is one. Behind the three customer windows, a robotic system nicknamed "Pill Packing Pete" dispenses most of the drugs. The Optifill-II robot dispenses the 240 most commonly requested medications at the push of a button. Pete selects from two bottle sizes, prints customer labels and bar codes, selects the drug, counts the pills and double-checks the contents before capping the bottles. Filled prescriptions arrive in minutes at the window and customers are on their way.
"It used to take seven technicians to do what we now do with three," said Staff Sgt. Brian Zentner, a technician with a computer background who knows "Pete" like a personal friend. "It was McDonald's work," he said of the old way, the seven technicians bumping into each other as they raced from pillbox to pillbox, shelf to shelf to fill orders by hand. "It was hectic, and the customers were frustrated with how long it took. This automation is a big help, especially for improving customer service."
With the robot, the pharmacy easily fills 200 prescriptions an hour. Customers are smiling now, aided by volunteer greeters at the door or cooperative, friendly "tellers" at the drive-through windows. Feedback shows a 95 percent improvement in customer satisfaction. Other DoD pharmacies are taking a close look at Patrick's methods -- and hoping to reap the same results at their locations.
The automated, customer-friendly pharmacy helped the 45th Medical Group win the Air Force chief of staff team excellence award in 1998. After winning similar honors from DoD, the group submitted a package to Gore's reinventing government program. In January, the Patrick staff learned it had won Gore's "Hammer" award for saving money and improving services.
The awards are nice, Swindling said, but the best thing about the changes the group has made is improved customer service and satisfaction. "It was the right thing to do," he reiterated.