There's a growing list of startups focused on building automation technology and artificial intelligence solutions to alleviate staffing shortages and increase efficiency at health systems and hospitals.
But, labor challenges and administrative bottlenecks plague pharmacy operations as well. Entrepreneur Joy Liu, a former finance executive turned healthcare executive, saw these pain points firsthand when she served as director of strategic operations at Shields Health Solutions, a specialty pharmacy company.
"I was spending five days a week within the four walls of health systems' specialty pharmacies, working alongside pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and clinicians, and it was eye-opening to me how much manual administrative work was burdening not just myself but also our team members," Liu said during an interview. "That firsthand experience is what really inspired us on where we wanted to focus and tackle the problem from an automation lens."
Liu saw the need for a flexible solution for pharmacy operation workflows that could integrate with disparate data sources and easily configure customer-specific rules, all on one platform, she noted.
Startup Plenful aims to automate healthcare and pharmacy workflows and streamline tasks with the help of artificial intelligence.
Plenful has raised $9 million in funding led by Bessemer Venture Partners, Waterline Ventures and other investors. The company now has 20 enterprise customers across health systems and pharmacies including Tampa General Hospital, Renown Health and Medication Management Partners. The company also is focused on working with long-term care pharmacies, specialty pharmacies, compounding pharmacy manufacturers and other healthcare organizations.
The funding will be used for hiring, product development and engineering and to invest in sales and marketing as the company focuses on scaling up its business. Liu said the company also wants to continue investing in innovation, particularly AI tech.
Plenful offers a no-code, AI-informed, healthcare workflow automation tool for pharmacy operations that allows pharmaceutical technicians to automate manual and administrative workflows so they can focus on top-of-license tasks and human-centered processes, according to the company.
The company's no-code software works with unstructured and structured data sources and is designed to be highly configurable.
"The reason why that's so important is that even very specific workflows that might exist at multiple health systems' specialty pharmacies have different specifications that are important with an entity. These entities have different policies and procedures. They work with different payers. They have different manufacturer contracts. Being able to actually be configurable to that level is critical on our end," Liu said.
Plenful's software tools also were designed to reduce manual data entry. "That means that we have to be able to not just read from various data sources, they have to be able to connect into other data sources as well to have that end-to-end interoperability," she said. "I can draw on my time as an operator and think about what I wish I had in terms of tooling, and one thing is getting access to metrics and reporting that otherwise is trapped in unstructured data sources, like documents and faxes. We've built these various layers that are meant to wrap around."
Plenful's customers are using the platform to automate document data entry for onboarding and referral orders, 340B auditing and savings identification, pharmacy revenue cycle as well as other use cases.
The company has overcome traditional integration challenges through its no-code infrastructure and flexible endpoints. Use-case-focused implementations typically take a few weeks to go live instead of many months or years to implement, company executives said.
There is a growing demand in healthcare and pharmacy operations for automation to streamline workflows and reduce pain points.
"Organizations in healthcare are more interested in technology innovation like ours than they would have been 10 years ago as AI has become more consumerized. But then also marrying that with some of the pain points around the labor shortages, the pain points around burnout, all of that goes around our thesis of how do we help healthcare workers do more with what they have today," Liu said.
The company claims that customers have seen up to 97% reductions in manual work and over 50 man-hours per day of otherwise manual work saved.
"Integrating Plenful into our operations team’s workflow has unlocked our care team’s potential by freeing them up to focus on more meaningful aspects of their work,” said Peter Chang, M.D., vice president of healthcare design at Tampa General Hospital, in a press release. "Through complementing the systems we already use in our operations and utilizing Plenful’s intuitive automation platform, Plenful has been a seamless adoption process and we are excited about the direct value add of the platform.”
As the healthcare industry continues to grapple with labor shortages and staffing issues, experts argue pharmacists are an underutilized resource that could play a much greater role in patient care. Research published in 2022 projected that most pharmacists will see a transition from transactional care to more direct patient care responsibilities by 2030.
And, retail drug stores see opportunities to leverage pharmacists to expand more into patient care. A survey from CVS Health and Morning Consult last year found that 61% of people would like to get a broader range of services at their local pharmacy. It also found that 74% of people trust their local pharmacist and agree they should be able to step in when primary care is not available.
"It's been really exciting over the last few years to see the pharmacist and the pharmacist role really elevated. I think where Plenful really comes in is to be really focused on optimizing their work," Liu said.