‘No going back’ to the old ways


Kieran Start, Christopher Durre, Max Mito and Mark Feldschuh. Source: Supplied.

Meet the team using AI and facial recognition to help community pharmacists say goodbye to paper and laborious processes to make more time for their patients

Max Mito, Christopher Durre and Kieran Start are the young entrepreneurs bent on bringing artificial intelligence and digital time-saving measures to community pharmacies across Australia.

The three men from Melbourne – accompanied by their champion, experienced pharmacist Mark Feldschuh – have developed software that streamlines many of the processes related to staged supply, opioid replacement therapy (ORT) and the drug register, with hopes to expand this scope over time.

It integrates with dispensing software to provide tools that improve compliance, with the aim of reducing drug misadventure.

Mito, 24, Durre, 24, and Start, 23, were still at university when they developed the idea of Strong Room, which they’ve now been running as a company for about a year and a half.

In just that short amount of time, they’ve managed to build up their client list to close to 500 community pharmacies.

“We should be in about 1000 locations by the end of this year,” said Mito, Strong Room’s CEO.

Feldschuh – a pharmacist, former president of the PSA Victoria branch and pharmacy owner for many years – came on board as executive director after realising the software’s potential.

“When I was told they used facial recognition in pharmacy, I immediately thought, ‘this is a solution looking for a problem’. I just couldn’t see the use of it,” he told AJP.

“But then I got shown the company and I did a double take because I didn’t think it was possible.

“I got really intensely involved with them and then I became an executive director of the company because I just believe in it so much.”

Strong Room offers a suite of products that digitise the pharmacy workflow, automating compliance and claiming aspects, allowing for digital signing and billing, and streamlining the auditing process for staged supply, ORT and the drug register.

Another big feature is facial recognition, which is automated to make it a lot quicker for pharmacists to identify patients.

Their opt-in facial recognition technology streamlines pharmacy processes by detecting patient faces, quickly bringing up that patient’s digital file and allowing the pharmacist to easily verify identity.

“What we’ve found is that the most time is spent in the dispensary looking for patient records, and our system does that within a second. So in that aspect you can just look at someone, know who they are and put it through,” said Mito.

“If you see it, you can’t go back to the old system. It’s just impossible,” said Feldschuh, who owned and managed a pharmacy in Victoria for over 30 years, and now conducts consultancy and advisory work.

The engine is “very fast and very accurate”, using machine learning to improve along the way, explains Durre, Strong Room’s Chief Information Officer.

“Every time you come into the facility and you get positively identified, we essentially merge together those results and it improves as time goes on and learns who you are,” he said.

“Very soon we’ll be rolling out mask recognition as well as part of that facial recognition, and so obviously this is quite pertinent with COVID-19, it’s got a high accuracy with that as well.”

They are also hoping to bring in facial recognition of the pharmacist themselves, to speed up workflow even more.

“It’s the same way you might open your iPhone or your Android,” said Mito.

“With cybersecurity concerns, you’ve got to find that balance between password protection versus convenience.

“What we’re pushing towards at the moment, and what I think will become widespread by this time next year, is webcams facing the pharmacist themselves, so they can have 12-character passwords but essentially still have the speed and convenience to then be able to authenticate themselves and dispense accordingly.

“We’re trying to get the industry to come forward with us on this feature.”

While some may express privacy concerns over images of patient faces being digitally stored, Mito explains that these technically aren’t stored as images.

“It’s like a biometric identifier. So from an engine perspective, it’ll look at Kieran and recognise him as 010010. And then if it looks at Chris it’ll be like 11010,” he said.

“The images are for the human double-check element of it, but really the engine itself looks at you in regards to [the biometric identifiers].”

Durre added: “Essentially you can’t reverse engineer someone’s face from our system. To make sense of these identifiers, you’ve actually got to be using the facial recognition engine and so it can’t be compromised by just pulling the data. You’ve actually got to be running the software for it to make any sense.”

So far, the facial recognition system has a 94% opt-in rate across pharmacies, with just two out of every 30 patients opting out.

“The facial recognition is very good and sexy. But there are other things involved – the programs are all digital,” Feldschuh added.

Strong Room’s software uses industry standard signing pads, and everything is incorporated digitally including billing so paper doesn’t have to be used anywhere.

“It’s all electronic. It seems to be a complete way forward,” he said.

“What we actually want to do is maximise that time where the pharmacist is interacting with patients, and not having to worry about menial stuff like searching through files and backtracking through documents,” explains Durre.

We see AI in the pharmacy as a support tool for the pharmacist, and really enabling pharmacists to do what they do really well, which is spend time with their patients.

So where do these tech-savvy entrepreneurs see pharmacy technology, and their product, heading in the future?

“As a company, what we really aim at doing is reducing adverse drug events, which is a huge problem,” said Mito.

“What we see in the future in terms of pharmacy is a lot more predictive decision support tools that utilise Active Script List data and Strong Room’s data set, to start predicting negative patient outcomes so that intervention becomes a lot easier.

“We feel as if the utilisation of professional services will also become a lot more significant over time as pharmacies look to create more services for their community as well. This is where we see AI playing a larger role.”

Durre added: “We’re looking to add more modules as we go, more in the professional services area of the community pharmacy.”

Meanwhile Feldschuh believes the digitisation of pharmacy is here to stay.

“It’s the not the way of the future, it’s here now. COVID-19 has accelerated everything unfortunately, these trends are already here,” he said.

“It just means it’s got to be going much quicker. Just like with telehealth, it’s so obvious. There’s no going back.”

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