The first pharmacy automation — robotic medication dispensing machines — became available to community pharmacies in the 1990s. With advances in technology, these machines have become even more cost-effective, and more pharmacies than ever are now using them.
Machines are much more efficient than humans. They save a lot of time, freeing pharmacy staff to spend more time with patients. They are also less expensive than a pharmacy technician. And they don’t make mistakes.
However, that is not to say that they are a panacea for pharmacies because there are issues to consider when using such automation. They don’t eliminate error and might open the door to other types of problems.
So, when deciding whether to install such automation, you need to weigh the advantages against the disadvantages.
As mentioned, machines work more rapidly than humans. One popular robot, for example, can fill up to 125 prescriptions per hour. They are also safer. The machines won’t mix up different medications or make counting mistakes.
They are also more secure. The medication is locked up inside the machine. Only those with the proper authorization can access the drugs.
Because robots reduce the time to fill prescriptions, they also reduce the time patients have to wait for them, which helps to improve customer satisfaction. Moreover, by taking overfilling of prescriptions, the robots allow pharmacists and technicians to spend more time helping patients, and to expand work in areas like immunizations, health screenings, and diagnostic testing.
Automation, however, does not entirely eliminate the element of human error. IT people say, “Garbage in, garbage out,” meaning that it will not give you the desired results if the computer is not programmed correctly. The same is true for robotic dispensing machines. If a pharmacy worker inputs the wrong information, fills a cell with the wrong medication, or makes some other error, the computer will not give the correct prescriptions.
Each automation system operates differently. This can create problems if a pharmacy uses a new vendor or hires a new staff person, who will need to be retrained.
Like everything mechanical, robotic dispensing machines can malfunction and need to be repaired. This won’t happen very often if they are properly maintained, but pharmacies need to have an emergency plan if the machine does break down.
Failures with the software are also a possibility. Any updates to the software should be tested before it is installed into the system.
Finally, humans need to refill the robots, so pharmacy staff needs to be careful managing their inventory to be sure they have enough drugs and the right kind. Someone with authorization to refill the robot needs to always be available in case medication reserves run low.
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