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Medication Vending Machines Offer Patient Convenience In Rural Areas

Elyas Bakhtiari, for HealthLeaders Media, May 11, 2010

When patients leave the ER at Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia, MN, there aren't a lot of pharmacy options. The closest 24-hour pharmacy is 20 miles away, and many of the patients live in the opposite direction.

But for the most commonly-prescribed medications, patients don't need to leave the hospital, or even see a pharmacist. Instead of driving the 20 miles and waiting for the prescription to be filled in a pharmacy, the patient can receive his or her medication in a couple of minutes.

On their way out they door they can stop at an InstyMeds machine--which resembles an ATM or vending machine--and fill their prescriptions by punching a few buttons.

"We have installed those mainly for patient satisfaction," says Stephanie Svoboda, director of pharmacy for the 110-bed hospital. Ridgeview has installed a similar machine in its same-day surgery center.

Although the national shortage of pharmacists has ebbed, many regions, particularly rural ones, still lack enough pharmacists or pharmacies to meet patient needs. Automated medication-dispensing machines are popping up in hospitals across the country to fill-in for missing pharmacists or to simply make filling a prescription more convenient for hurried patients.

The machines can hold 20-30 different medications, such as pain medications, antibiotics, and other drugs commonly prescribed to ER patients. The pharmacy staff at Ridgeview worked directly with physicians to determine the proper inventory for the machines, which are popular with the ER doctors, says Svoboda.

"Our ER physicians love [the medication dispenser.] They wouldn't give it up for the world," she says.

When a physician writes a prescription, it is synced with the InstyMeds machine. The medications in the machine are pre-packaged based on standard dosing amounts. The patient is given a special code to enter, along with their date of birth, and can pay for the co-pay with either cash or a credit card right at the machine.

Even for hospitals or clinics that don't have to worry about pharmacist shortages, the automated machines can free up pharmacy staff to deal with more complex medications and interact with patients. The ATM-style machines aren't meant to replace a pharmacist and generally don't dispense prescriptions that require regular refills.

InstyMeds, a Minnesota-based company, has roughly 200 machines installed across the country at urgent-care clinics and emergency rooms.

Although interest in automated prescription machines seem to be growing, some states regulate or prohibit their use, which could slow growth.

Ridgeview Medical Center is considering adding a third machine within the next year, says Svoboda.


Elyas Bakhtiari is a freelance editor for HealthLeaders Media.

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