Walgreens Robots Could Fill Almost Half of Prescriptions by 2024

Walgreens pharmacy

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Walgreens is creating more than 20 robotic-assisted fulfillment centers to automate nearly half of pharmacy labor. 
  • Pharmacists will shift their attention to clinical practices and offering community support for their patients.

Your next Walgreens prescription could be filled by a robot and you wouldn’t even know it. 

Earlier this year, Walgreens announced an initiative to roll out “micro-fulfillment centers” that use robotic arms to fill 300 prescriptions per hour. These centers are separate locations from consumer pharmacies, and handle all prescription fulfillment out of public reach.

“This multi-year project aims to build 22 sites by the end of 2024, with the ability to fill more than 40% of our overall prescription volume when fully scaled,” Walgreens spokesperson Alex Brown told Verywell. “Once prescriptions are filled at a central location, they are then sent back to a local Walgreens pharmacy for pickup.”

Why Use Robots?

Those unfamiliar with what pharmacists do on a regular basis might not understand the need for micro-fulfillment centers. 

Along with filling prescriptions, pharmacists also offer clinical services such as medication education, vaccination services, diagnostic tests, and more. They also supervise technicians, and often work as general managers to the pharmacies they serve. 

“With three micro-fulfillment centers open to date in Memphis, Phoenix, and Dallas, we are starting to see the positive impact on patient care, enabling pharmacy teams to focus more time on patient needs while routine tasks like filling prescriptions and managing inventory are handled off-site,” said Brown.

Mat Rezaei, PharmD, founder of men’s digital health company Upguys, told Verywell that having robotics replace monotonous tasks allows pharmacists to do things that machines simply can’t do. 

“Being a pharmacist is being a provider, a person who listens and draws a conclusion—a conclusion that requires empathy a robot wouldn’t be able to feel,” Rezaei said. “It is also important to be well-rested, and getting rid of tasks will allow pharmacists to be able to pay more attention to the patients and doctors.”

Micro-fulfillment Centers Offer Speed and Accuracy

Walgreens aims to automate much of the manual labor of checking and filling patient prescriptions. But how does that translate to benefits at the pharmacy level? What kinds of changes can patients expect to come from the roll out of these centers?

Mary Youssef, PharmD, a mobile IV infusion therapist with HealthIV, talked to Verywell about some of the benefits that come from automating the fulfillment of prescriptions. 

“Machines can fill a prescription faster than a human can, resulting in shorter wait times for patients,” Youssef said. “This can lead to enhanced workflow and technicians will be able to focus on other tasks that they may not have had time to do before.” 

Youssef adds robotic control offers safety benefits, too. 

“Pills will be less likely to be miscounted or confused with look-alike pills, thus reducing medications error,” she said. “The pills are also kept in a sterile environment, ensuring much less medication contamination.”

Medication contamination is a risk at traditional pharmacies because of the way pharmacists fill prescriptions. 

“The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world where medication is taken from large bottles and placed into smaller bottles,” Nayan Patel, PharmD, adjunct faculty at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy, told Verywell. “For a pharmacist to spend his or her precious time performing this task is a waste of time and intellectual talent.”

CNBC reports pharmacists will continue to fill time-sensitive prescriptions and controlled substances themselves.

Drawbacks of Micro-fulfillment centers

Since the fulfillment centers haven’t reached many locations yet, it’s hard to tell what sorts of problems might occur. Erika Gray, PharmD, a former Walgreens pharmacist, shared some of her concerns with Verywell.

“When it comes to viewing and verifying the medication, will pharmacists have all the information needed if the robotics go down for a day or the program becomes corrupt?” Gray wonders. “Just as we have seen a growing number of cyberattacks, will this ever become a problem in the future with pharmacy robotics? And can we afford to take that kind of leap or risk with patients’ lives?”

Potential security risks aren’t the only problem that might come from such automation. 

“Robots can only fill prescriptions that are available in one dosage form,” Patel said. “They do not have the capability to work with customized formulations for patients. This should be left for the pharmacist, a medically-trained expert.”

In the meantime, though, Walgreens pharmacists are already benefiting from the three existing micro-fulfillment centers.

“As a result of these micro-fulfillment facilities, we are already seeing pharmacists use their newly freed-up time to engage more in clinical solutions centered around prevention, treatment, and management to improve patient outcomes,” Brown said.

What This Means For You

As micro-fulfillment centers expand in the next two years, expect shorter wait times for prescriptions at Walgreens pharmacies.

By Mel Van De Graaff
Mel is a transgender and neurodivergent health journalist specializing in LGBTQ+ issues, sexual health, and mental health.