Automation inevitable, so adapt

robot touching futuristic interface

The pharmacy profession could well fall victim to technology if it does not reinvent itself, says the founder of PharmHack.

Pharmacist Sabrine Elkhodr, who has written for AJP on the subject of disruption, responded to a report on automation in California where pharmacists are being replaced by robots, saying that pharmacies need to prepare for the inevitable.

The Future of You health and technology blog highlighted a medical center in California where seven pharmacy technicians supervised by three or four pharmacists have been replaced by robots and two technicians at most.

The UK is being actively pushed towards an automated “hub and spoke” model.

“Pharmacists and pharmacies are in danger of becoming irrelevant very quickly if they don’t actively seek out opportunities to disrupt their own business models,” says Elkhodr.

“If you’re a pharmacy owner that hasn’t already started to think about ways to innovate and offer value outside of the medication-supply function, then you need to start very quickly to avoid being crushed by the disruptive forces that are going to hit pharmacy very soon.”

“There is a lot of fear around the hub-and-spoke dispensing model that I think is being driven primarily by those who feel it is a direct attack on their primary function: the supply of medications.

The “Amazonisation” of medication supply is inevitable as we move towards an economy that values automation and simplification,” Elkhodr told the AJP.

“The hub-and-spoke model will force us as pharmacists to focus on providing value to patient health by doing what we were actually trained to do: provide health counselling and professional services.

“If your pharmacy provides nothing more than a venue to pick up medications, then automation will hit you hard,” she says.

Many pharmacists are already delegating these tasks to dispensary technicians already.

“These robots are simply automating a task that pharmacists don’t want to do so they can focus on what actually matters: providing quality health advice and counselling to their patients.

“The dispensing process can be divided into two distinct parts: the handling of the medication and the consultation.

“Automating the first part is perfectly appropriate and necessary to allow pharmacists to spend more time and energy on the second part- counselling the patient.

“The point of automation in any industry is to take away mundane, repetitive tasks that humans currently have to complete to give them the time and space to do the work that really matters.”

The pharmacies that will survive a seismic shift in the pharmacy landscape—whether that shift comes from automation or deregulation—will be those who value patient health and actively provide value to their customers through comprehensive medication counselling and professional health services, says Elkhodr.

“There is of course the ever-present fear that as artificial intelligence evolves, most healthcare functions (including doctors) will become obsolete.

“There is an overwhelming sense in the tech world that eventually, the only jobs that will be left for humans will be those requiring abstract thought and the strong ability to empathise and connect with other humans.”

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  1. DI

    In reality the savings in pharmacist time will allow owners to reduce pharmacy head count. There will always be those who have the bare minimum employees and don’t focus on mediction/health advice.

  2. william

    A lot of tasks can be fully automated in all healthcare areas by modern technology and ignoring it will not stop it happening.
    In pharmacy the script could be written by the prescriber and a barcode type sign given to the drug, strength pack size and dosage printed on the “script” physical or electronic and matched with the patient name, age, gender, address etc etc.
    This can be presented electronically to the dispensing source which could pick, label and collect the batch no, expiry, date etc and match all to the requirement.
    If required it could pack for collection, postage, despatch and charged to the patient’s account.
    Drug interactions, over usage etc could be monitored by the system thus avoiding errors, adverse reactions and abuse.
    Just as prescription books, carboys etc have disappeared so will many human actions in the healthcare system.

  3. The Truth

    Current robotic dispensary application is expensive and frought with issues. For example, few people know that it can cost over $12k per annum just to service a dispensary robot. Add to this other issues such as not being able to store every object due to size or shape constraints, poor bottle handling and the fact that human intervention is still needed when you load the machine or the robot decides something isnt right; then you don’t actually have such a strong case. There are many shortcomings of dispensary automation and in all honesty you are better of hiring a part-time dispensary assistant for $20k per annum that can do a multitude of other things. Plus if business doesnt go so well you can always remove them – you can’t do that easily with $200k invested in a depreciating machine. OR invest in a well-laid out, efficient dispenary with gravity shelves and fast-access modules. This will be cheaper and if you perform time and motion studies can actually be as fast or faster than a robot when dispensing <3 scripts and fast movers. With PBS income on the decline, one has to question the actual value of investing heavily in automation.
    There WILL be a time for automation in pharmacy, but I would wait before buying in as the current tech is expensive and far from foolproof. Technology is advancing at a rapid rate.
    It's a bit like purchasing the latest sports car with all the bells and whistles. Sure they go quick but they don't mean you get to your destination any faster. If your fancy machine breaks down on the way then you look like a fool sitting on the side of the road. They also come with heavy service costs and once out of warranty repair is also expensive. However they do make you appear successful….

    • BJ

      People have mentioned to me that it can often be harder than a traditional dispensary to manage stock inventory and expired stock as you cannot physically see the stock hidden in the machine. This can end up causing efficiency issues with stock management. Especially at a time with harsh PBS cuts, accurate stock control is so, so critical to profitability.

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