Anyone who has waited in a long line at the pharmacy knows how time-consuming the dispensing of medications can be. Most retail pharmacies have only one pharmacist on staff at a time, relying on a handful of technicians to fill prescriptions and answer patient questions. The solution to this problem is automated dispensing machines, a technology that allows robots to store and fill prescriptions.
Robotic dispensing machines are large storage containers that are computer-controlled using a touch-screen interface. They work much the same way vending machines do, dispensing medications to customers and staff according to their prescriptions. Depending on the type of machine, the system is able to count pills, cap bottles, label the prescription vial, store hundred of medications, and even access patient information to ensure accuracy. It can be a major time-saver for the pharmacy, but is it safer for the customers?
Pros and Cons of Dispensing Robots Used in Pharmacies
Dispensing robots were first introduced in retail and outpatient pharmacies in the 1990s. The goal behind their creation was to expedite the filling of prescriptions and make the running of the pharmacy more efficient. In many ways, the machines have proved highly beneficial to both patients and pharmacy staff, and they are now used nationwide to fill all kinds of prescriptions.
Some of the advantages of these machines include:
- Speed. One of the biggest benefits of these machines is faster service. Customers do not have to wait as long to receive medication, and the machine can fill a prescription much faster than a human can.
- Safety. Pills that look alike may be easily confused or miscounted by pharmacy staff, while the automated machine does not have this problem. In addition, the pills and medications are kept in a sterile environment, making the common occurrence of medication contamination much less likely.
- Customer service. Allowing robots to fill prescriptions allows pharmacists to devote more time to patient care. Pharmacists may be free to talk to patients about their medications, address possible interactions, and answer questions to improve the quality of a patient’s life. Pharmacists may also be able to devote more time to provide basic preventive care, such as administering immunizations and performing health screenings.
- Security. Medications are securely locked in automated dispensing machines, and all dispensed pills are tracked by the machine’s software. Only certain pharmacy staff members are trained on how to use, open, and restock the machines, reducing the potential of medication theft or human error.
While these machines offer many benefits, they do not completely remove the danger of pharmacy errors. Automation has a few disadvantages, such as:
- Variety. There are many different kinds of automated dispensing machines, each with its own specific operating procedures. Older machines may be less reliable, while newer ones may have a complicated interface that is difficult to use.
- Mistakes. Unfortunately, automated pharmacy dispensing machines can still make mistakes—and if the wrong drug is loaded into the machine, many customers can receive the wrong medication before the problem is identified.
- Breakdowns. To reduce human error, only a few staff members may be trained to use the machine at each location. This can cause delays if the machine needs service, is malfunctioning, or needs reloading of vials and medications.
- Software problems. These machines are run by computer programs, which can fail without warning. Installing software updates and hooking the machine to the pharmacy’s own record management system can take time, and must be done properly to avoid errors in the future.
If your pharmacy uses an automated dispensing machine, there are a few things you can do to reduce the risk of a medication injury. You should always check any medication you receive before you leave the pharmacy, making sure that the pills are the right shape, name, and dosage. You should never hesitate to speak to the pharmacist if you have questions about your prescription—no matter if your medication was dispensed by a robot or by a staff member. If you or someone you love has been hurt by a pharmacy error, we encourage you to share this article with others on Facebook or contact us to learn more about your claim.