Pharmacists Compete With Pill-Packing Robots for Patient Safety

A new machine at the University of California at San Francisco may permanently change the way pharmacies operate, hopefully to the benefit of patient safety. The machine is a “robot pharmacist” named PillPick, and it does much of the work ordinarily performed by pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. So far, as shown in this video, it has been able to do the work with a far lower error rate than human pharmacists.

PillPick cost around $7 million to install, which is less than the amount UCSF spends in a year on pharmacist salaries. People must periodically stock the machine with medications, but PillPick is largely autonomous after that. Medications are stored in bins and marked with bar codes. The machine identifies the correct medication and uses a suction-powered arm to remove pills from bins. Its programming allows it to recognize when its arm has failed to pick up a pill or has picked up too many. It sorts the correct number of pills to fill a prescription and applies labels with the identifying prescription information. At full capacity, it can dispense more than 10,000 medication doses in a day. UCSF reports that PillPick has freed its pharmacists to work in other areas of the hospital, such as managing IV medications and patient drug treatments. In over 350,000 doses, it apparently has not made any errors. A pharmacy robot suitable for retail use costs around $200,000, making it a tempting investment for many pharmacies.

The role of the pharmacist has changed considerably as technology has advanced. With computers and newer systems of packing and distributing medications, pharmacists now spend much of their time supervising the dispensing of pre-packaged medications rather than actually preparing medicines. Machines like PillPick are in many ways a continuation of these changes, with the goals of improving efficiency, cutting costs, and reducing the risks of human error in dispensing medications. Human error is the single largest factor in pharmacy errors, occurring in as much as two percent of all prescriptions nationwide.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to ensure that pharmacy errors never occur, whether a pharmacy is managed by a human or robotic pharmacist. The legal requirement that a licensed pharmacist dispense medication is sometimes the only reason human pharmacists are directly involved in the process. The presence of a licensed pharmacist lends a sense of professionalism to a pharmacy, but more important, it gives the appearance of accountability. In the event of an error, someone is in charge to handle the problem or take the liability. The use of robotic pharmacists creates interesting legal questions relating to liability for errors. Where a human pharmacist’s error creates an issue of professional negligence or malpractice, a machine replaces it with issues of proper operation or maintenance as well as product defects.

Machines such as PillPick may prove to effectively reduce medication errors and cut costs for hospitals. They may also free pharmacists to perform services that still require human input. How the use of such machines affects issues of liability and accountability among medical professionals, and what relief injured patients may recover, remains to be seen.

Lebowitz and Mzhen, LLC, a Maryland pharmacy error law firm, represents people who have been harmed by incorrect medications or dosages due to human or computer error. Contact the firm today for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case.

Web Resources:

Manjoo, Farhad. Will Robots Steal Your Job? My father the pharmacist vs. a gigantic pill-packing machine. Slate, September 26, 2011
Overview of the PillPack machine, Swisslog Holding AG

More Blog Posts:

New Palm-Vein Scanning Technology Introduced to Reduce Medical Errors in Hospitals, Pharmacy Error Injury Lawyer Blog, August 22, 2011
The Benefits and Problems of Electronic Medical Records Systems, Pharmacy Error Injury Lawyer Blog, August 10, 2011
Benefits of Robo Pharmacy Technology in Reducing Prescription Errors, Pharmacy Error Injury Lawyer Blog, April 1, 2011

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