Meet ROBOT-Rx, The Robot Pharmacist Doling Out 350 Million Doses Per Year

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With a barcode-based system, ROBOT-Rx fills orders with 99.9 percent accuracy.

Come to think of it, why do we still have pharmacists? I mean, how hard is it to count by “twos”? I’m just kidding of course. You probably want that extra pair of human eyes to check on your prescription. But after the pharmacist has double-checked the prescription and answered your questions, why not let robots count the pills out for them?

Meet ROBOT-Rx, the automated medication dispensing system. Made by medical technologies supplier McKesson Corp, ROBOT-Rx is like the vending machine of the future, except it hands out drugs instead of candybars. And it might surprise you to know that over a third of medium and large hospital pharmacies in the US are already using ROBOT-Rx to fill 350 million medication doses each year.

The robot automates every step – except prescription, humans still do that, for the time being. But storage, selection, return, restock, and record-keeping are all carried out by ROBOT-Rx. And as you might imagine, ROBOT-Rx doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, filling medications with a 99.9 percent accuracy, according to the company. Pharmacists reduce their need to double-check orders by 90 percent, missing medications are reduced by 92 percent, and inventory is lower. In the end, ROBOT-Rx saves the hospital 54 percent on medication costs.

The medications are placed in envelopes or cassettes with bar-codes that links it to the computer record of the patient and updates the drug inventory as prescriptions are filled. And even it doesn’t merely count by twos. With its Fill Mode logic function, ROBOT-Rx prioritizes orders and fills them in the most efficient sequence.

Here’s a video of the robot pharmacist. I failed to mention one other reason why a robot pharmacist is perfect for the job. As one of the McKesson employees point out, “It’s also not bored, it likes doing this.”

If medical errors are one of the leading causes of death, and medication dispensing errors account for 21 percent of all medical errors, then higher accuracy through robots would be a welcomed change. It’s happening, and not just with ROBOT-Rx. Both the University of California, San Francisco’s Automated Pharmacy and the PillPick system at New Jersey’s Holy Name Hospital work ’round the clock filling thousands of doses each day.

The end result of greater back end automation will be to bring the pharmacists to the front, allowing them more time to interact with patients and answer doctors’ questions. As they introduce robotics into production lines, companies are quick to say the robots won’t take away jobs, that it frees up people for more skilled tasks. At least for the pharmacist, this seems to be true.

As for the pharmacists’ technicians, however….

[image credits: McKesson Corporation]

images: McKesson Corporation
video: McKesson Corporation

Discussion — 3 Responses

  • wwjimd June 3, 2012 on 9:46 pm

    I like this article except for this part:

    “If medical errors are one of the leading causes of death, and medication dispensing errors account for 21 percent of all medical errors, then higher accuracy through robots would be a welcomed change.”

    It seems to imply that because medical errors are a leading cause of death, and that a large portion of medical errors are medication dispensing errors, then medication dissension errors cause many deaths. This doesn’t follow logically. Imagine a similar hypothetical statement: if traffic accidents are one of the leading causes of death, and fender benders account for 21 percent of all traffic accidents, then less fender benders would be a welcome change. The implication that fender benders are the cause of many traffic related deaths doesn’t follow. The deaths could be mostly, if not all, related to other sorts of accidents.

    Regarding medication dispensing errors this seems to be the case. Following the link provided, upon a cursory glance, it says that their were “154,816 medication error[s]” and out of these only 19 resulted in death. This study reported on years 1999-2001, making a average death rate of 6 people per year due to this type of error. I couldn’t find the death rate due to medical errors the had an exact overlap for these years, but a HealthGrades study examining data from medicare came to the conclusion that, on average, 195,000 per year people died due to medical error during this time period. 6 people per year that are dying due to medical dispensing errors is a very small portion of this population.

    The PDF of the study I am referencing is below:

    http://www.healthgrades.com/media/english/pdf/HG_Patient_Safety_Study_Final.pdf

    • Peter Murray wwjimd June 4, 2012 on 7:19 am

      wwjimd,
      I did read that article. In fact, if there are no dispensation errors, deaths due to medical errors would not change appreciably, as you pointed out. And so yes, my statement was an overreach. Thanks for being an astute reader. :)

  • BigInScience June 6, 2012 on 7:40 am

    Excellent article and excellent analysis Peter! I agree automation will become more prevalent in medicine (I recently wrote in article about an FDA initiative that would allow patients to obtain prescriptions using a computer interface: Why Your Next Doctor May Be a Computer http://ow.ly/boNNg

    I agree with Peter’s analysis. While automation may not replace the pharmacist, it could replace other positions (ie pharm tech). Thanks for the article Peter!