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.