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UC San Francisco hospital integrating robotic pharmacy


March 11, 2011

A pharmacy robot selecting medication (Photo: Susan Merrell/UCSF)

A pharmacy robot selecting medication (Photo: Susan Merrell/UCSF)

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The University of California at San Francisco Medical Center is now starting to use robots, not humans, to dispense medication from its hospital pharmacy. While robots are often brought into workplaces as a cost-cutting measure, UCSF claims that in this case, it's to minimize the chances of patients receiving the wrong medication. So far, it seems to be working out well – out of 350,000 doses of oral and injectable medication prepared to date, not a single error has occurred.

Utilizing Swisslog's PillPick system, bulk batches of pills are separated out into individual doses, bagged and stored. UCSF physicians electronically send orders in to the system, which then proceeds to pick and dispense the appropriate pills. All the bagged doses of all the pills that a patient will need within a 12-hour period are strung together on a plastic ring, and bar-coded. There are plans for nurses to use bar code readers, to confirm that the right medication ends up going to the right patients.

An automated inventory system keeps track of how much medication is in stock.

Three RIVA robots, made by Intelligent Hospital Systems, are able to dispense doses of liquid medication, such as IV syringes or bags.

All of the robots work within a secure, sterile environment, which is said to greatly reduce the chances of medication getting contaminated. Because human pharmacists don't handle the drugs themselves, there is also less risk of them being exposed to toxic drugs, such as those used for chemotherapy.

Hopefully the robots won't be putting any pharmacists out of work, but will instead allow them to put their training to better use. "Automated medication dispensing frees pharmacists from the mechanical aspects of the practice," said Mary Anne Koda-Kimble, dean of the UCSF School of Pharmacy. "This technology, with others, will allow pharmacists to use their pharmaceutical care expertise to assure that patients are treated with medicines tailored to their individual needs."

The phase-in period for the system began in October 2010, and will continue until next year.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Stroger Hospital in Chicago has one of these - but the funding for the hospital is so low there are no drugs to stock it with.

Facebook User

Interesting technology to be sure. There\'s no mention of any GIGO (Garbage In Garbage Out) detection, such as recognizing the shape/color/etc of pills. The ay its described a person putting the wrong barcode on a box of pills at the start could have far reaching effects.

On the other hand it sounds like it might be possible to keep drugs in conditions (light/heat/humidity, etc) that will make them more stable and improve the quality of medicine vs the average pharmacy.

Facebook User

Hey! Could these be re-programmed to replace politicians???

Nick Lucko

Nothing new here . . . automated script filling technology has been around for years


The main driver for this innovation is de-skilling the workforce to reduce labour costs. I used to run a 12 pharmacy group in UK and visited the wholesale distribution depots. Part time, low paid women filled stacks on a massive machine which snaked through the whole building. The workers filled by stock number, they did not need to know anything about the drugs. The stacks were on automated dispensers above a complex conveyor belt network. When someone came into one of our pharmacies and asked for a drug we did not have, we scanned the prescription into our system and the machine in the depot would add it to our next box delivery (twice a day). Go into a Walmart at 11 am and ask for something they don\'t stock to be available by 4pm same day. When they say \"No way!\" tell them a little pharmacy in rural West Wales can do it, so why not you?

Doug MacLeod
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