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The Pros and Cons of Rx Robotics

Greg Freeman for HealthLeaders Media, April 13, 2012
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This article appears in the April 2012 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

Pharmaceutical robotics has made its way from futuristic, cutting-edge technology to almost becoming just another highly sophisticated tool that we expect to see in larger healthcare facilities. But that does not mean it is a perfect solution to medication dispensing problems. Before you sign on to a multi-million-dollar pharmaceutical robotics program, consider the potential pitfalls you may encounter on the way to all the benefits.

The benefits can be significant. Leaders at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, say their robotic system has greatly improved safety. With a new automated hospital pharmacy—believed to be the nation's most comprehensive—UCSF is using robotic technology and electronics to prepare and track medications with the goal of improving patient safety.

Pharmacy processes are labor intensive, explains Sheila Antrum, RN, MSHA, UCSF Medical Center's chief nursing officer. The pharmacy dispenses about 10,000 doses a day of 3,000 medications, and there are about 10 steps to be completed between the order being written and the patient getting the medication, she says. Each step in that process includes a risk for error, and automating the system has taken that risk to nearly zero. Not a single error has occurred in almost 3 million doses of medication prepared since the hospital installed the PillPick system from Swisslog, a global supplier of integrated logistics solutions with U.S. offices in Denver.

UCSF opened a centralized, robotic pharmaceutical production facility in the Mission Bay area of San Francisco in October 2010. Everything is barcoded, which is the first step in eliminating human error, says Lynn Paulsen, PharmD, director of pharmacy practice standards for the University of California Office of the President. Housed in a tightly secured, sterile environment, the automated system prepares oral and injectable medicines, including toxic chemotherapy drugs. In addition to providing a safer environment for pharmacy employees, the automation also frees UCSF pharmacists and nurses to focus more of their expertise on direct patient care, taking them out of the mechanical steps of dispensing drugs, which Paulsen notes is not the best use of their intellect.

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