Robot Pharmacists?

We’ve seen robot butchers, robot waiters, robot rabbis, and more. Should we now expect robot pharmacists?

The good

Robots can count out pills and pack them into bottles. This is not highly creative work requiring human insight. Walgreen’s now sees 40-50% of their prescriptions packed by machines.

Walgreen’s, as well as CVS, has also seen strikes by pharmacists. Required to fill prescriptions, often for lines of waiting people, to provide vaccinations, and to give information and advice to customers who may be sick or at the very least not at their best, pharmacists have been feeling overworked and under appreciated. Add staffing the drive-through prescription window, calling patients and handling phone calls, and meeting sales-based numerical requirements, and some pharmacists feel that their work is downright dangerous. Automation could help reduce the workload to a more manageable level and give pharmacists more opportunity to help people.

Reducing pressure on pharmacists could also reduce errors made under that pressure. Robots are less likely than humans to make mistakes. They don’t get rushed or tired or rattled by grumpy customers. They’re more consistent.

Some specialists believe that AI can help, too, by answering common questions and predicting needs more accurately.

Aethon’s TUG line of healthcare robots help deliver medications securely within hospitals. They put it like this: “TUG does the work that people shouldn’t or don’t want to do.” With much of pharmacist’s work falling into the “dull, dirty, or dangerous” category, robots seem like a good solution.

The bad

The problem is, a pharmacist’s job has very high stakes. An error in a prescription can lead to death. While a robot might be less likely to miscount tablets or misprint a label, robots do not have any common sense. A human would be more likely to notice a typo or misinterpreted scrawl that seems to call for an unusually high dose. Software incompatibility or inconsistent data mapping don’t cause problems for humans, but can be severe for machinery.

A recent paper on errors by pharmacy robots listed a number of different source of errors, including errors in reading barcodes, measurement errors, failure to grasp items correctly, and an inability to handle things like misshapen needles or items of nonstandard size. Lack of staff training has also been identified as a pain point, along with staff resistance to automation.

One study found numerous potential failure points, including situations in which multiple changes were made, issues associated with the arrangement of medications on the shelf, and prescriptions for medications which were out of stock. Any of these situations could be overcome by a human, but not necessarily by a robot.

Cooperation solution

It seems clear that an all-automated pharmacy will not be a good solution in the near future, but cooperation between human and automated pharmacists seems like a possible solution to the problems currently being seen in the field.

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