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how is big data changing pharmacy
Big Data played a massive role during the pandemic, and it’s set to continue changing the world of pharmacy.

Big Data affects pharmacy owners and pharmacists of any kind. And its impact is growing exponentially. How can I say that with such certainty? Because Big Data is shaping the future, which affects everyone. But in this article, we’re concentrating on the specific impact that Big Data may hold for pharmacy in the future.

What is “Big Data”?

Big data is information, and lots of it. So much, in fact, analysis by anything other than powerful computers is impossible. In healthcare, hospitals and clinics across the world generate 2,314 exabytes annually. An exabyte is to a gigabyte what the Sun is to the Earth. If that seems like too much to wrap your head around, it’s because it is. Even traditional computers cannot compute that much data.

Every minute, on the Internet:

  • 2.1 million Snapchats sent.
  • 3.8 million searches on Google.
  • 1 million people log into Facebook.
  • 4.5 million videos watched on YouTube.
  • 188 million emails sent.

That’s a lot of data. And though it might not seem like it, data tells stories. Advancing into a more data-centric world, understanding these stories influences our capacity to adapt.

Working against the numbers is like sailing against the wind. Working without numbers is like sailing without a compass. Naturally, working with the numbers is the preference. So a future with more numbers gives us a better chance of making better decisions.

How does Big Data work with AI?

Artificial Intelligence is inextricably linked with Big Data. AI learns best with the massive amounts of information provided by Big Data. And Big Data is too big for anything except automated systems and AI to collate and manage.

So how can Independent Community Pharmacy use all that data?

Because of the scale of Big Data, I can’t see Community Pharmacies harnessing Big Data directly. The infrastructure required isn’t affordable or even worthwhile for a comparatively small business.

What is a possibility is centralising all this data and making relevant data accessible to pharmacies. Third party service providers utilising Big Data may also improve the quality of life for Pharmacists, as we’ll explore later.

It’s also likely with pharmacy’s integration with the rest of the health service, that as Big Data impacts healthcare, pharmacy will feel the ripple effects.

Your pharmacy’s data as part of Big Data

Rather than using the Big Data, Community Pharmacy may find itself being used by Big Data. Community Pharmacies provide anonymised patient data into the huge database, where it can provide that bigger picture. Obviously this is a subject of much discussion, balancing privacy and data-protection with the wider benefits of data-sharing from a health perspective.

Since companies like Meta & Google already harvest (anonymised) personal data for profits, lobbying for improved individual healthcare through shared data doesn’t sound too underhanded.

Privacy Concerns

Protection of this data from privatisation & for-profit ventures, however, is a notable concern. There is a lot more red-tape, as always, when it comes to health data too. A technical employee from Facebook hypothetically seeing information about your account is one thing. But health records are a more serious breach.

When it comes to Big Data, a single Community Pharmacy may also be impacted, not because of what you can see and action because of that bigger picture, but because you’re a part of it. As the bigger picture is seen clearly, decisions could be made which hold ramifications for every community pharmacy, or individual ones. An example could be the value of individual pharmaceuticals if the processes for drug trialling becomes radically simplified.

Another practical example is identifying certain geographical areas prescribing more antibiotics compared to other areas. Regulatory bodies can identify pharmacies and surgeries in these areas using Big Data and run targeted campaigns aimed at either reducing these prescriptions, or increasing them in surrounding areas if they’re also showing reduced hospital admissions.

Is Big Data impacting pharmacy right now?

Big Data is very much underway as a phenomenon in the both the industry and the wider world.

Tracking footfall with smartphone GPS

There exists already an advanced form of advertising tracking, typically for humongous advertising behemoths (think McDonald’s level), where through smartphone tracking, advertising agencies can trace someone who was within line of sight of a billboard, for example, and then visited a McDonald’s restaurant.

Like any technology, when first introduced, they’re expensive and generally unavailable to the wider public. But just like 4KTV’s, Smartphone location tracking draws nearer to the mainstream. It already exists in diluted form, if you’ve ever seen on your Google My Business profile, this is GPS phone tracking in action.

Imagine this, but with more insights for your pharmacy business. Where do they travel from? Where did they go before your pharmacy? What’s the average age of people who visit you on a weekend? How many of the people who saw your social media post visited your pharmacy in the next 7 days?

How might Big Data impact Community Pharmacy in the future?

Big Data’s impact on Community Pharmacy will increase exponentially, parallel to data’s impact on our lives in general.

The limitation is the same as data’s limitation has always been – the people analysing the findings and the way that we collect data.

  • Drug development
  • Patient compliance
  • More data informed patient health & proactive interventions
  • Risk assessment & fraud reduction
  • More efficient clinical trials
  • Assisting with Pharmacy Purchasing, both for purchasing pharmacy assets and pharmacy businesses.

Not all of these directly impact pharmacy, but pharmacy feels the ripple effects of the shock waves in healthcare.

How wearable technology helps Big Data

Wearables are small electronic devices that, when placed on your body, can help measure temperature, blood pressure, blood oxygen, breathing rate, sound, GPS location, elevation, physical movement, changes in direction, and the electrical activity of the heart, muscles, brain, and skin.

These measurements help with all levels of assessment for a wide variety of ailments.

Think about trying to diagnose someone without any information. Naturally, the more informed we are, the better our judgment becomes.

Informing Patient Interactions with Big Data

Big Data from health apps, medical records and other sources revolutionise your conversations with patients.

Pharmacy is an analytical profession. Interpreting patients data alongside Big Data trends means better prescribing pre-treatment, and better medication assessments post-treatment. Of course, for individual care like this, opting-in to data tracking becomes necessary for patients.

As a pharmacist, there will almost certainly be a consultation opportunity either to address these Early Warning Signs, or to monitor the use of and advise on the data provided by wearable technologies so that it never reaches that stage.

Wearables should in theory hand agency and power over to the patients. Whether this inspires a new generation of health-conscious patients, time will tell.

What are some of the barriers to Big Data for Pharmacy?

The biggest barrier is in both the centralisation of data and the privacy associated with data tracking. Maybe approval for centralised data never arrives. Perhaps in ten years, the public are hyper-aware and precious about their personal data and turn GPS tracking off.

Preventing databases from hacking and exposing large amounts of people’s health data is obviously a great concern. Mitigating and preventing this is necessary before approaching anything like centralised health data.

Whoever holds the data holds the power

Meta & Google currently hold vast quantities of the world’s data. They don’t exactly hold the best reputation as a result of the profits from this data. When basing big decisions on the data, trust in the source and credibility of this data is a pre-requisite. Large corporations hardly have a clean record of telling the truth with data.

What do I need to do as a pharmacist?

Informing your decisions with data is always a smart move. Big Data will bring more data to your door. Getting experience handling and basing business decisions on data now is great preparation for a data-filled future.

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artifical intelligence in pharmacy
With massive advances in recent years, AI in pharmacy isn’t far away. And the changes AI will bring to pharmacy promise to be massive.

What is Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

Artificial Intelligence is another term for machine learning. It traces its roots back to World War 2. Alan Turing, a renowned logician, was recruited to break the German military’s Enigma Code – a process that could not have been achieved by humans. The machines (called Bombes) learned what to do, effectively by learning what not to do, using laws of logic. Similarly, machines are now more than a match for humans at Chess, demonstrating that when it comes to logic, the human brain has limitations that machine learning does not.

Whilst the application of AI has advanced significantly since then, the core concept of how it works is pretty much identical. Humans use available information as well as reason in order to solve problems and make decisions, so why can’t machines do the same thing?

The limitation has always been the amount of information that computers can store. But increasingly, with storage (where the AI stores its knowledge) and the data sets (from which AI can learn) both massively increasing over the decades, this limitation is a thing of the past.

AI is inextricably linked to Big Data, which is just as important, if not moreso, as the data is what gives the AI the information to learn. There’s no point in having a big brain if you never learn anything. Arguably, AI is worthless without the data to learn from, whereas we’d at least be able to interpret Big Data in a limited capacity with our soft, human brains.

word cloud featuring pharmacy, data, ai, pharmacist and other associated words

How does AI impact Pharmacy right now?

The frontline of pharmacy is probably yet to feel the full force of the impact AI is making on the wider Pharmaceutical Industry. Whilst facial recognition and speech pattern monitors can be used to detect rare diseases, it isn’t like these systems are in operation in community pharmacies.

Something that is more accessible is compliance technology. though perhaps not in the guise that it’s needed quite yet.

Another accessible option for pharmacies is artificial intelligence Sentiment Analysers, which are in a trial phases of a rollout for things like phone calls.

Sentiment analysers

Sentiment analysers are artificial intelligence programmes that analyse either text, or speech & voice patterns and detect in real-time how a person is feeling based on that analysis. If you’ve ever used Grammarly, and it’s shown you how your writing might come across to your readers, that is sentiment analysis at work.

Now, you might think it’s obvious when someone is angry at you on the phone. And it is. But over the course of hundreds of phone calls, seeing the analysis of the trigger words which cause this anger, as well as the words used to calm people, might well give you insights leading to more effective phone conversations. Not only for you, but your entire team. This is the sort of insight that it’s almost impossible to analyse when we’re the ones holding the phone conversations, as we’re usually focused on what we’re doing, rather than analysing ourselves.

How can AI impact Pharmacy in the future?

The limit to this question will be found in the limitation of the human imagination. Pointed in the right direction, and given the right data, there aren’t many areas that AI can’t improve.

  • Drug development & efficacy (both linked to genetics)
  • Patient compliance
  • More data informed patient health & proactive interventions
  • Risk assessment & Fraud reduction
  • Driverless Delivery
  • Sentiment Analysers
  • More efficient clinical trials

Not all of these directly impact pharmacy, but pharmacy feels the ripple effects of the shock waves in healthcare.

These are the areas that AI can impact pharmacy. But let’s look in more detail at some of the areas where AI almost certainly will impact Pharmacy in the future.

Driverless Delivery

Driverless cars across all roads are still decades away, say experts in the field of AI. But the rollout of smaller, driverless delivery vans like the type that deliver Domino’s Pizza are on the horizon.

Depending on your model, your preferences and your priorities, you might reject this idea.

“I like my delivery driver and they have a great relationship with the patients,” you say. I think that there’s definitely a big argument for retaining the service of a delivery driver. Especially considering serving an elderly population who aren’t tech savvy. They aren’t going to want to start messing around with PINs sent by text and entering it into the van. And there’s also a strong argument for the social contact that delivery drivers give isolated patients being a part of the service to the community.

However, there is a credible argument for utilising both driverless and driver…ful vans. Just like the Pharmaself24 works alongside your counter staff, the driverless delivery van could be a great addition to your arsenal. It gives a green option to a more tech-savvy, environmentally conscious generation. And a more convenient option to those who don’t need social contact from the delivery driver.

From the perspective of a pharmacy business owner, it’s another case of automation making fiscal sense. Why pay for another delivery driver and a van, when you can just pay once for a driverless van? That isn’t necessarily a rhetorical question, but it’s certainly one you’d consider from a business perspective.

Monitoring Patient Behaviours

AI can revolutionise healthcare, not just pharmacy.

It would rely on some sort of large shared database, as machines, like humans, can only learn from information they have access to. But coupled with Big Data from health apps, medical records and other sources (ideally encrypted, protected from third parties and shared across healthcare institutions) Artificial intelligence should allow frontline healthcare professionals like pharmacists incredible insights to inform patient conversations with.

Imagine having the knowledge that 43 year old men statistically don’t finish their course of antibiotics, or that people from a certain background traditionally don’t respond well to a certain medication. Think about how much great advice you can give. If you weren’t in a care setting, you’d clap your hands together and evil laugh with all the power now at your disposal. And I painted that hyperbolic picture tongue-in-cheek because, naturally, patients still need to be treated as individuals. This sort of power shouldn’t blind us to the need for individual care. But it certainly makes giving tailored care easier.

heart rate monitor on a wearable watch

Wearables

This is an important one for pharmacies to pay attention to for two reasons.

AI knows cardiac patterns which lead to serious issues, and people wearing health tech can be given early warning signs. The more innovation happens with wearables, the more interventions can be made proactively, instead of reactively. Which in healthcare, makes a massive difference. It’s a lot easier to prevent a heart attack than it is to recover from one.

As a pharmacist, there will almost certainly be a consultation opportunity either to address these Early Warning Signs, or to monitor the use of and advise on the data provided by wearable technologies so that it never reaches that stage. AI will do most of the legwork here when it comes to interpreting and analysing the data. As the pharmacist, it will be your job to give tailored advice based on the AI’s findings. Perhaps it’s a dietary change, perhaps an increase in exercise, perhaps it’s a prescription. Either way, it’s very similar to general health checks now, except far more informed by data, not only from that specific patient, but by all the data gathered by wearables.

Pharmacies perfectly positioned purveyors

The second reason this is important for pharmacists, is because pharmacies should already be looking to be leading distributors of wearable health technology. When people buy in-person, it’s because they want advice about the products from experts. Who better to sell wearable health technology than the health professional who works with them? When the world of wearables reaches its peak, you don’t want to be just learning about them. This is a relevant retail offering, and the sooner you get on board, the better for your pharmacy business. Activity trackers are only the beginning of wearable health tech. Innovations in this area will continue to develop, with nano-technology making the wearables less cumbersome and easier to wear. But it is AI, which makes everything possible.

Of course, there’s going to be people who reject wearing technology, for a number of reasons. So it won’t immediately make every patient interaction super easy. But for the ones who do, you can look forward to better informed consultations.

Monitoring Fraudulent Behaviour

It feels as though I read about a struck-off pharmacist every other week for some fraudulent behaviour or other. But the beauty of AI, especially when coupled with shared data, such as from SystmOne, is that once fraudulent behaviour happens, and happens, and happens again, the system learns the unconscious patterns in an organisation that lead to fraudulent behaviour. The financial world deploys similar systems. In fact, $217 billion has been spent on AI systems preventing fraud and assessing risk within the banking industry alone. Obviously, the expense of these systems is large (these systems usually start at around £100k), however, as technology advances, it will grow increasingly more affordable.

It isn’t just pharmacist fraud either. Prescription fraud faces a tough future, (provided we move to a fully digitised system,) not just with AI detecting fraudulent patient behaviour, but also from blockchain technology. Blockchain is actually the better of the two at stopping fraud (certainly for now) as current anti-fraud AI technology doesn’t work in real-time.

Could A.I. go badly for Pharmacy?

We could wish for AI tomorrow and end up regretting embracing the technology too fast, or for the wrong reasons, Black Mirror style.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Well, probably the worst-case scenario is the malevolent use of Big Data. There’s a definite argument for whoever controls the data holding too much power. Especially as corporations, whose primary directive is to make more money, are the ones investing heavily in AI. This is especially true if one company ends up as the dominant force in the industry.

Coincidentally, a short while after I wrote the sentence about Big Data being used malevolently, I came across a company called Benevolent AI, involved in drug discovery & development. It’s either sheer coincidence, or the AI industry is already proactively setting the perception this kind of criticism.

AI – Always Infallible?

There’s also the potential for AI to get things wrong. When you consider that it learns solely from data, without the experience or the perspective of a human, then what happens when the data it’s making decisions on is inaccurate, or incomplete? For instance, facial recognition technology isn’t as effective on Black & Asian faces. Imprisoning incorrectly is an issue. Diagnosing incorrectly and prescribing medication for an ailment someone doesn’t have? Also not ideal. Now, there are failsafes we can put in place. But misinterpreted data, or conclusions drawn from incomplete data are potential pitfalls that need accounting for.

What do I need to do as a pharmacist?

Eventually AI will go mainstream and become the default in healthcare settings. As and when this happens, naturally everyone must adapt.

But until that point, my advice is proactively seek out these technologies and innovations, as soon as you can. They make your life easier, and your patients lives better.

Why would you not want that as soon as possible?

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