Pharmacy technicians are receiving help in their daily duties from an unexpected source: robots. Automated dispensing machines are popping up in pharmacies across the country, counting, bottling and even labeling prescriptions. The automation of these tasks frees pharmacy technicians to focus more time on stocking shelves, dealing with billing and payment issues, ensuring proper pricing, interacting with customers, preparing IV medications and other non-automated duties. Placing such repetitive tasks in the hands of a machine also increases accuracy by reducing the risk of human error, in addition to significantly increasing the speed with which customers can receive their medicine. Depending on the system, prescriptions can be filled in as little as 10 seconds.
Automated pharmacy systems typically work using a barcode system. Doctors type prescriptions into a computer system that converts the information into a barcode that is read by the robot, which grabs a bottle and fills it with the medicine specified in the code. The machine is programmed to dispense the proper amount of medicine based on the size and shape of the pills. The system then prints a label with the drug dosage information and instructions for the customer to follow. By requiring doctors to type prescriptions, automated systems decrease the chance for human error in misinterpreting physicians’ notoriously illegible handwritten prescriptions.
With the volume of prescriptions rising drastically in this era of preventative medicine and aging Baby Boomers, the number of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians hasn’t kept pace with the number of prescriptions that need to be filled. As such, robots are becoming less of a luxury and more of a necessity. Of course, robots are susceptible to malfunctions and are only as accurate as the humans who build and program them, so humans will always be needed to verify the machines’ work.