The backroom work of counting pills and putting them into bottles has long been all in a day’s work for pharmacists. But in recent years, some hospitals and pharmacies are turning increasingly to pharmacy automation systems to take care of that. Robots, in the common parlance.
One popular model is the PillPick, manufactured by SwissLog. It packages, barcodes, stores, and dispenses individual doses of medication. Pharmacists verify the orders before they’re sent to patients.
Why the surge in popularity? The first reason is to cut down on pharmacist errors that can sicken or even kill a patient. A study at a Houston hospital in 2012 discovered that pharmacists made an average of five errors for every 100,000 prescriptions. Pharmacy blogger Dennis Miller says that while some mistakes are due to carelessness or other inexcusable error on the part of the pharmacists, other errors are due to chronic understaffing in chain drug stores—something pharmacists have no control over.
The number of chain drugstores in the United States like Walgreens or Rite Aid have increased by 11% in the past decade, so what happens at chain drugstores is incredibly relevant to the industry.
The other reason pharmacy robots have become more popular is because they tend to decrease the incidence of pharmacy errors. After a patient was accidentally overdosed at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center in 2008 due to a nurse’s pharmacy error, hospital officials began looking for ways to cut down on prescription errors. They say prescription errors have dropped dramatically since introducing pharmacy robots in 2010.
UCSF Medical Center today uses on of the SwissLog PillPick machines, three robots that prepare IV fluids for patients, and four that find and retrieve stored medications. After they have gathered, measured, and packaged the pills, one of the university’s 25 TUG robots delivers the pills to patients all over the hospital.
What’s the price tag on all this? SwissLog won’t disclose prices for their robots, which must be custom-designed for each hospital’s needs. But the Nebraska Medical Center paid more than $1 million for a PillPick robot in 2007. They say it runs 24/7 and fills 10,000 prescriptions per day. They also say it has caused a 70% reduction in calls to the pharmacy from nurses who are missing doses of medication. Before the PillPicker, it took several pharmacists 12 hours to accomplish what one robot can do in four hours.
Automation, however, is not likely to result in a decrease in jobs for human pharmacists. A representative for the American Pharmacists Association said that automation merely takes over the menial tasks and allows pharmacists to do the important work of counseling and interacting with patients, as well as checking for drug-to-drug interactions for patients with multiple prescriptions.