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Site-wide system boosts processes and security, improves patient care and outcomes

Story by Logan Clow

Amy McMorran, pharmacy manager for Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, poses in front of one of the facility’s new Omnicell automated medication dispensing cabinets. Photo supplied.

An automated medication dispensing system that enhances processes, security and real-time medication tracking while improving patient care and outcomes has launched at Northern Lights Regional Health Centre (NLRHC).

The $1.5 million system went live in October 2020 and includes 15 automated workstations and six automated anesthesia workstations.

“This facility-wide automated medication dispensing system utilizes the latest hardware and software technology to provide safer, more efficient medication processes, while integrating with the health record system,” says Murray Crawford, senior operating officer, Fort McMurray.

“Ultimately, this system optimizes our patient-care delivery by allowing our healthcare teams to spend less time managing medications and more time caring for their patients. This will lead to better patient health outcomes.”

This project was made possible by the Northern Lights Health Foundation, which generously contributed $850,000 to launch the system. Alberta Health Services (AHS) contributed additional funding to ensure all drug-dispensing areas of the hospital could be included.

“The Health Foundation remains committed to ensuring our residents continue receiving excellent care and positive health outcomes — all delivered by a compassionate, professional healthcare team — right here in their own community,” says Cindy Amerongen, foundation executive director.

“We’re more than happy to support this initiative and we’re pleased to see the benefits and positive impacts it’s already provided staff and patients. We will continue to work with Alberta Health Services and the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre. We sincerely thank members of our region, who continue to help us raise millions of dollars for medical equipment, capital projects and patient programs.”

The system and workstations are manufactured by Omnicell, an American company specializing in automated pharmacy systems.

Workstations are equipped with a computer, scanner and cabinet. The cabinet is stocked with barcoded medications. To dispense medication, staff must have the appropriate credentials and follow a series of security steps. They scan the medication’s barcode when placing it into the cabinet. Medication taken out for a patient is also scanned and documented in the Omnicell system as well as the patient’s health record.

“Since launching, this innovative system and equipment has significantly enhanced workflows and security, reduced paper usage and medication-dispensing errors, and has ensured our staff have secure access to the right medication at the right time,” says Amy McMorran, NLRHC pharmacy manager. She adds that staff have remarked how pleased they are with the system’s efficiencies.

“We’re sincerely grateful and fortunate to have the support of the health foundation in helping purchase and launch this state-of-the-art automated system. We appreciate their continued generosity and ongoing commitment to improving healthcare in the Fort McMurray region.”

One way the system helps workflows is in the time it now takes for physician orders to reach the patient’s bedside.

“It really cuts down on time and eliminating some extra, timely processes. Some patients have noticed they’re receiving their new medications more quickly,” says McMorran, who adds the system will integrate with Connect Care when it launches at the NLRHC in 2023.

Northern Lights pharmacy staff fill about 264,000 prescriptions a year, and there are several benefits in having real-time medication tracking.

“From a pharmacy perspective, we can track a number of things, such as when workstations are getting low on medications and when certain medications will expire,” says McMorran. “We can also monitor and identify emerging and recurring dispensing trends. This information really helps us in ensuring we’re managing the pharmacy and its inventory safely and efficiently, and patients are receiving the right medication they need at the right time.

“It really is about patient safety. Real-time tracking allows us to identify, address and resolve an error more quickly in the rare event it happens. We’re then immediately able to implement the necessary steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Several AHS sites already use automated medication-dispensing systems. The NLRHC is the first to use automated anesthesia workstations (AWS). Each AWS is assigned to an operating room, negating the need to move units from room to room.

“Automated drug dispensing is new to the perioperative environment,” says Breanne Kinney, manager, NLRHC Operating Room.

“Our anesthetists can now quickly log in, choose their patient, scan each medication, and document waste through the system. The counting of narcotics and tracking of drug waste is no longer manually tracked in our departments, adding to drug safety and accountability.”

Prior to the system’s launch, staff and teams received comprehensive hands-on, in-service training — both in-person and online — from Omnicell as well as the hospital’s clinical education team.

“Risk-reduction strategies such as the implementation of the Omnicell medication distribution system put the health and safety of our patients and staff at the forefront,” adds Crawford.

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