Synergy Medical manufactures pharmacy automation systems that dispense solid oral medications into blister packs to organize patient medication into a calendar for safe and accurate dosing. When pharmacists and their technicians are filling hundreds of these packs by hand, it is labour-intensive, and there is plenty of room for error, especially as they must keep up with tight deadlines. Although blister packs have existed for decades, there was no fully automated solution for filling these packages until Synergy Medical.
Roughly fifteen years ago, Synergy Medical President and Founder Jean Boutin was a salesperson for a different type of pharmacy automation system that used strip packaging. Strip packaging dispenses the medication in separate pouches, but it does not have the thermoformed or cold-formed cavities of blister packs, nor the intuitive layout. Blister packs, however, have been proven to boost the rate of patients who adhere to their prescribed medication regimen. This improves outcomes for patients and revenue numbers for pharmacies.
After numerous pharmacies expressed a need for blister pack automation, Jean realized there was a gap in the market that he could help fill. In 2007, with the assistance of a mechanical engineer and a software engineer, he created a prototype that could efficiently, safely, and accurately dispense medication into blister packs.
Pharmacists were interested immediately. The first installation of the automation system – SynMed® – took place in January of 2008, and today, there are over five hundred systems installed throughout the world. SynMed® can be integrated into an existing pharmacy operation to manage the entire process, including receiving and organizing the prescriptions, blister card production and customized label creation. The SynMed® XF uses Pick & Place technology to fill fifty-five doses per minute, which translates to approximately eighty-five single-dose cards per hour or thirty multi-dose cards per hour – dependent on the number of prescriptions per patient. Synergy Medical’s newest technology, the SynMed® ULTRA, has three times the throughput of the XF, with only 1.5 times the footprint. No other technology comes close to the 100 multi-dose blister packs per hour that a pharmacy can produce with the ULTRA – this high-volume system is typically found in centralized production facilities.
As it becomes better known that the intuitive nature of blister packs significantly increases patient adherence to prescribed medication, the system is growing in popularity with doctors, nurses, and pharmacies everywhere. There are many brands of blister packs, so Synergy Medical has made its technology capable of adapting to over thirty blister pack brands on the market, both single and multi-dose.
“One of the things that make us unique is we don’t have a proprietary pack that we fill. We adapt the tray of our robot to fill whatever our pharmacy customers want to provide to their patients,” said Vice President of Marketing, Samantha Cockburn.
The few others in the industry that offer blister pack filling automation systems have simply adapted strip packaging automation for a new purpose. This consists of gravity-fed technology where all the medications run down a common chute and mix together before they are dispensed into blister packs, and there is quite a bit of cross-contamination from the dust of other drugs that have been in the chute.
When creating SynMed®, Jean Boutin started from scratch. He developed a distinctive technology that uses vacuum suction and a series of filters. “We use Pick & Place technology,” Samantha explained. “There is only one point of contact in the system with the pills, the stainless steel pipettes; the medication is picked using gentle suction and dropped into the correct blister cavity. There is no other technology that does that.”
Synergy Medical is headquartered in Longueuil, Quebec, where the design, manufacturing, service and support are all performed. Synergy Medical also has a sales team, service technicians, installers and trainers that cover all of North America and Europe. One of the key assets of the company is its team dynamic. The 155 employees contribute substantially to the business processes and product development, and have allowed the organization to easily adapt and grow with the changing market needs and pressures.
“I’m very proud of the team I have in place right now. They’ve done an excellent job, and we’re constantly looking at new ways to improve the processes and the product as well as to make sure that reliability is always at the forefront. They’re a very bright group,” said Vice President of Production, Procurement, and Engineering, Don Chandler.
Another quality of Synergy Medical is its flexibility in the market. It is large enough to provide quality solutions worldwide yet small enough to establish close relationships with all of its customers and to customize SynMed® implementations accordingly. The company’s main competitor is a multinational, multibillion-dollar company that sells many products in many channels. But when considering service and support, there is nothing close to what Synergy Medical can offer.
“Most installations end up having some kind of personalization or customization, and we really try to accompany our customers as closely as possible to make everything a success before, during, and after installation,” said Samantha. Additionally, Synergy Medical’s in-house operation is nimble and can redesign software and create new interfaces when necessary.
For the last three years, Synergy Medical has been creeping up on the list of Maclean’s ‘Growth 500’ ranking of Canada’s fastest-growing companies, where most recently, in 2019, it was in the 382nd position. The company has seen growth in every aspect of the business. It is hiring new employees, installing about one hundred systems a year, and expanding into new fields as well.
The launch of the SynMed® ULTRA opened a new sector of the pharmacy market that partners exclusively with nursing homes. “Now with this high capacity machine there’s a whole new channel opened up, and we’ve even recently been put on contract for the U.S. Federal Government,” added Samantha. This has elicited interest from Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, and Corrections. In addition, more hospitals are recognizing the benefit of blister packs. Rather than handing patients a piece of paper with a prescription when they are discharged, the best way to ensure medication adherence is to provide a blister pack with clear indications of when each drug should be taken. Otherwise, prescriptions are often lost or never filled, which increases the chances of re-hospitalization and backtracking on the progress the patient made while they were in the hospital.
Rapid business growth comes with additional challenges for Synergy Medical. While concentrating on market needs and training new employees, it must ensure that the quality and reliability of its machines are consistent to maintain its reputation. As the company expands, it will remain loyal to its values: “Our customers come first; our employees are the backbone of our success; we honour our commitments, and we treat others the way we’d like to be treated ourselves,” stated Don.
New regulations are continually coming into place in the U.S., but the accuracy of the SynMed® technology can put more minds at ease. Blister pack automation systems are highly beneficial for pharmacists and their customers, and for the healthcare industry as a whole. “If you read up about medication adherence issues, we’re always seeing this number of 300 billion dollars of healthcare costs that are associated with medication non-adherence in the U.S. A lot of money is wasted because prescriptions are just not taken properly, and blister packs are such a simple and accessible solution,” explained Samantha.
In the coming year, Synergy Medical expects its U.S. installations to overtake its number of customers in Canada. There is much more growth potential south of the border because blister packs are already well established in Canada, whereas multi-dose blister packs have been more recently discovered in the U.S. Since the U.S. has ten times the population of Canada, the company expects its growth to continue as blister packs become more commonplace in the U.S. Outside of North America, Synergy Medical has thirty-five automation systems installed in Europe, and is exploring opportunities in Australia as well.
As Synergy Medical expands into new markets and regions, the company is excited to bring more value to the healthcare industry through its leading blister pack automation technology. “Ultimately, we do what we do because all of us here believe that the service that we’re offering to the end-user is a good thing. It has real value in the real world; it helps patients, and it helps families,” expressed Samantha. “What we do is unique, and it’s nice to stand for something. Our jobs matter and make a difference in people’s lives.”