Would you want a robot dispensing drugs for you and your patients? Odds are, that’s long since been the case, to one extent or another:
Robotics have been used to help dispense medication in some pharmacies since the 1990s and robots for delivering medication have been used in hospitals for a decade.
And even before that, machines have been used for decades to count pills for dispensing – Such technology is now the standard in more than 30,000 pharmacies worldwide.
But will technology ever replace pharmacists completely?
What is Pharmacy Automation?
Pharmacy automation is the performance of tasks being done through the use of technology. In the case of pharmacy, this includes storing, administrating, filling, packaging, and labeling medications for distribution. There are several resources that are used to provide these automated services such as automated pharmacy systems, pharmacy dispensing robots, and outpatient pharmacy automation.
Benefits of Pharmacy Automation Systems
Pharmacy automation systems go hand in hand with the concept of pharmacy automation. These systems provide an automated way for medications to be stored, administered, filled, packaged and labeled for distribution. These systems can be utilized through the use of robots and/or other automatic dispensing systems.
Some of the benefits to using automated pharmacy dispensing systems include:
- Increased Speed
- Increased Accuracy
- Enhanced Security
- Greater Productivity
- Cost reductions
- Reduced medical waste
Cons of Pharmacy Automation Systems
While there are benefits to pharmacy automation systems, there are certainly downfalls as well. There is less room for adaptation within automated systems. If a pharmacy makes changes to their systems or procedures, an automated machine may not have the capability to advance along with those changes. This may be a pricey upgrade in the long run. As with most pieces of technology, computers have a tendency to run into errors and failures. So long as pharmacy staff is maintaining the equipment properly, it shouldn’t become an issue however if it does, it may become quite time-consuming and costly to repair any errors. There are often glitches when installing any kind of updates to a computer and this is no exception for pharmacy dispensing machines.
Dispensing machines still need to be refilled. Without a staff member present, there is a chance of the machine running out of inventory. Therefore it’s crucial for a pharmacy staff member to always be on site.
Most of a pharmacist’s job can’t be done by a machine
While pharmacists and their staff dispense medication, they are primarily trained as experts on pharmaceuticals, their effect, side-effects, and interactions with other drugs. Much like the doctor delivering a baby who’s only in the delivery room for a tiny fraction of the time (if at all, assuming there are no complications), you’ll be glad to have access to a pharmacist the second something goes wrong with your meds.
Pharmacists are a human insurance policy against any and all things about the prescription you’re taking that you might need fact-based subjective advice on.
In many cases in the U.S. and Canada, a pharmacist is available (and a very handy alternative to waiting to see a doctor at a walk-in-clinic or your family physician by appointment) for medical advice about minor ailments like coughs, colds, sores, blood pressure, weight loss issues, contraception, quitting smoking, and general aches & pains who may even be able to write prescriptions for some things related to these.
Humans for managing and advising people on medication and medication interactions will be needed more than ever
While automated medication dispensing systems for hospital pharmacies have been heralded as lifesavers for reducing drug errors and improving productivity, the role of pharmacists is shifting more and more away from simple pill-dispensing.
The percentage of Americans who do more than just “get their prescription” from their pharmacist is set to skyrocket, as the health of the average American continues to decline, and automation for certain medication-dispensing tasks are taken over by technology.
Also, pharmacists are (and have been for many years) available to help patients monitor progress on medication and help maximise results by making lifestyle observations and analysis (in conjunction with family doctors, nurse practitioners and/or specialists.)
Again, as the population continues to ail, the availability of pharmacists in this roll will soon begin to outpace the advantages of replacing them outright with a pill-dispensing machine.
Robots can’t anticipate the imperfect landscape of the average hospital or clinic
Filling prescriptions isn’t the only job for pharmacy robots. At the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, pharmaceutical robots (TUGs) travel the hallways via laser “whiskers” and even use radio signals to summon and direct elevators to get from floor-to-floor. This allows such wheeled robots to deliver medication to authorized personnel, who confirm their identity to the robot via fingerprint reader.
Pretty cool…But here’s the problem: Robots can’t interact with the diverse environments in clinics and hospitals with the reliability of humans. A simple example…TUGs can’t step up an inch or two at random when leaving an elevator in an older building that hasn’t stopped perfectly level with a given floor – something that happens way more than you’d think.
“An older infrastructure is something you don’t usually consider, but you should,” UMMC doctor Marc Summerfield, told healthleadersmedia.com last year. “You’re introducing the most modern piece of moving machinery and it expects its environment to be pristine. If your hospital is older, the floors aren’t perfect and the elevators aren’t always precise. It can be a problem you’ll have to overcome.”
- More on pharmacy automation
- Cases where partial pharmacy automation actually makes sense
- A nifty history and lay-person’s overview of the pharmacist profession
- More on pharmaceutical TUG robots
- TUGs in action at University of Maryland Shock & Trauma Center
Interested in a career in pharmacy? View Soliant Pharmacy jobs here: Search Pharmacy Jobs