It’s not just manufacturing jobs and factory automation where robotics is having an impact replacing human toil, professional jobs, especially repetitious, boring ones, are also affected. And if there ever was a professional occupation tailor made for robot conquest, dispensing drugs is it.
As Farhad Manjoo, writing in Slate.com, puts it, “The fundamental problem for pharmacists is that their jobs are marked by insufferable repetition. This should serve as a lesson for every professional in America. If you’re wondering whether your career is under threat from robots, think about what you do every day.”
Not only does the repetition result in boredom for the dispensing pharmacist but it also spells danger as well: medication errors occur all too frequently when “insufferable repetition” is mixed with high-potency pharmaceuticals, and, as is frequently the case, overworked pharmacists.
Death by medicine
The figures are appalling…and frightening. An estimated 450,000 preventable medication-related adverse events occur in the U.S. every year. The Office of National Drug Control Policy reported to the Washington Post that as many as 5 percent of the 5 billion prescriptions filled each year are incorrect. In fact, prescription drugs cause most of the more than 26,000 fatal overdoses each year, says Leonard Paulozzi of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A study published in the journal Medical Care found that as the number of prescriptions pharmacists filled each hour increased, so did the risk that customers would walk away with the wrong medicine or with medicine that might interact harmfully with another of their prescribed drugs.
The report found “the typical pharmacist filled about 14 prescriptions per hour. With each additional one, the risk of dispensing a potentially harmful drug went up by 3 percent. At some pharmacies, almost 10 percent of prescriptions filled were potentially problematic.”
According to the National Coordinating Council for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention, it is estimated that nearly 1.5 million people are injured (100,000 fatalities) in the United States every year through medication or prescription errors. It’s being tabbed as “death by medicine” and the costs to society are more than $136 billion annually—greater than the total cost of cardiovascular or diabetic care.
Problem source found, solution needed ASAP
Overwhelmingly today, it’s a human hand that fills the over 5 billion annual prescriptions (averaging over 14 prescriptions per capita in the U.S.), which, in turn, is overwhelming pharmacists.
Compounding the situation, a USA TODAY investigation found evidence of corporate policies, especially in large drug chains, encouraging pharmacists to fill hundreds of prescriptions daily and rewarding fast work.
“Something has to go when they’re processing that many prescriptions,” says Daniel Malone, lead researcher and pharmacy professor at the University of Arizona. Invariably, what “goes” is diligence in correctly filling each and every prescription…which then begs the solution as to what needs to “go” as being the human hand in the process.
All the while the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls for more human hands, projecting a 17 percent increase in the need for pharmacists over the next decade. The high demand for pharmacists has also led to steady wage growth—in 2010, the median salary for an American pharmacist was $111,000, almost 70 percent more than what he earned in 1999.
Enter the robot pharmacist
It’s with a strange yet reassuring sense of relief to know that there is an alternative to humans dispensing drugs, even if that alternative is a machine.
Can a robot reverse the pharmacy problem, maybe prevent the tragedy of drug errors and maybe even save a bit of society’s $136 billion annually?
It appears to be a large yes, especially when talking to staff members at the Medical Center at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) about their new robot pharmacist called PillPick, developed by integrated logistics supplier Swisslog, Buchs, Switzerland.
PillPick can dispense more than 10,000 doses a day. After a year in operation, the robot, which is the size of a small room, has filled 350,000 prescriptions without making an error, beams Lynn Paulsen, director of pharmaceutical services. Compared with the national statistics for dispensing, PillPick’s error-free diligence is astounding.
Prior to PillPick going live, UCSF used half of its 100 pharmacists to fill prescriptions; now those same staff members are used elsewhere in the hospital, mostly with IV medications. And the $7 million price tag for the machine just about equals a single year’s salary for all those 100 pharmacists.
Back to the numbers
Beyond a doubt, if UCSF is any indication as to a robot’s value dispensing medications, there will be a growing need for their services. Even if human pharmacists were not overworked, the odds are still stacked against them. The work is still insufferably repetitious, which to be fair is a subjective call; but errorless dispensing over an entire year, that’s just too much to overlook.
Surely the trend for robotics will continue among some of the nation’s more than 56,000 pharmacies (39,000 as chains; 17,000 independent pharmacies), or, as in case of UCSF, with medical centers and large hospitals.
Over time, and with further development, the price tag for a robot pharmacist will decline. However, the perfection in output of product and avoidance of medical tragedy—the death by medicine—needs to be addressed immediately.
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