Dispensing medicine is about to get more efficient. New Jersey’s Holy Name Hospital is using robot pharmacists to package, store and dispense medications, while an automated system at an Ohio children’s hospital is preparing I.V. drugs for patients. Automation in medicine is reducing human error and cutting costs, and because these robots can handle pills in a fraction of the time it takes humans, we should be noticing a lot more of them around real soon. Be sure to check out one of these robo-pharmacists in the video below.
Robot pharmacists are doing what humans can do, and better—at least when it comes to sorting medication. Augmenting human abilities and performing critical daily functions are nothing new for robots—in fact, that’s usually what artificial intelligence is built to do, and it’s how automation is gaining ground in medicine. General Electric has developed software that can track patients’ history and suggest treatments in real time. Intuitive Surgical’s DaVinci robot regularly performs prostate removals and hysterectomies, albeit under the guidance of human hands. Meanwhile, doctors can now monitor their patients’ hearts and review exam results with smart phones, and recently we told you about how a California medical center ordered 100 iPads to keep its personnel current. All of these technologies are aimed at increasing efficiency and reducing mistakes. Robot pill-pickers can’t claim the sleekest of designs—some look like computers before IBM invented desktops—but they do get the job done.
Swisslog—a company that specializes in logistics solutions for healthcare—is taking up shop at North American hospital pharmacies. The Pillpick system automates the packaging, storing and dispensing of medications. Unit doses are placed in storage until ready for pickup. The system’s inventory management software even allows remote hospital pharmacies to communicate directly with wholesalers, eliminating unnecessary clerical work. And this robot is somewhat intuitive. If a canister empties in the middle of making a batch, the system selects it out for the pharmacist to complete before continuing on to the other batches, which saves time and boosts quality in the long run. Since 2007, the system has revolutionized the way Holy Name Hospital administers medication for its patients, noting fewer mistakes because of its barcode technology.
ForHealth Technologies’ IntelliFill is also reducing human error by automating I.V. drug preparation at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio. The system can fill up to 500 syringes with the same substance in just one hour, or it can prepare an individual medication in minutes—it even labels each syringe with the corresponding patient’s information. It’s almost like not having to lick envelopes anymore, but way cooler. Machine errors are few and far between, and—thanks to a nifty color-coded alert system—are automatically discarded once detected. IntelliFill also brings down costs. Methodist University Hospital in Tennessee—a test site for the system—is using fewer I.V. bags and wasting less due to more accuracy when drawing dosages. Watch the IntelliFill in action in the video below.
Automation and AI in medicine is moving full speed ahead, and it’s a great idea. Robot pharmacists are just the next step in automating healthcare, and we will no doubt see more efficient robots in our hospitals in years to come. But humans won’t be going away anytime soon; although reported errors are few, user-friendly interfaces on these machines allow professionals to check and calibrate systems if necessary. The idea isn’t to replace humans; it’s to reduce human error. Cutting down on waste and ensuring greater accuracy are on every medical professional’s to-do list. Now, dosing medications more efficiently will allow pharmacists and doctors to think more about their top priority: what their patients need. Now we just have to design a robo-pharmacist that looks like Nurse Chapel from Star Trek.