‘Robo-pharmacist’ slashes queueing times at Helen Joseph

2014-02-16 14:00

From afar, it looks like an automated forklift, moving from side to side and up and down at high speed. It whizzes along its rails, picking up boxes and moving them to the right little pigeonholes.

But this isn’t a factory and the boxes don’t contain hardware.

Instead, we’re standing outside a rectangular cubicle in the middle of the Right to Care’s Themba Lethu HIV Clinic at Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg – and the fast-moving machine is a “robo-pharmacist” that’s changing things for the better at this busy public hospital.

The robotic arm has drastically reduced the time spent in queues by patients waiting to receive their monthly dose of life-saving antiretrovirals (ARVs) and TB medication.

Before the R3?million machine was installed in September 2012, patients waited an average of four hours in the pharmacy queue. They now wait for about 45 minutes.

The clinic sees more than 750 patients a day and has more than 17?000 patients on ARVs.

The arm can’t function without human help from elsewhere in the bustling hospital complex and the process is simple: A patient arrives at the hospital, is examined by a doctor and is prescribed some medication. Instead of the doctor scribbling the script on a piece of paper, it’s captured on a computer system that is linked to the pharmacy’s patient management system.

A print-out with a unique bar code is given to the patient to take to the pharmacy – and by the time he arrives at the pharmacy, staff already know that the patient is on his way and needs a particular combination of drugs.

Sometimes, says regional pharmacy manager Robert Setshedi, patients find their medication already packed and waiting for them, but “in most cases, the pharmacists wait for patients to arrive and scan the bar code”.

“Once that is done, the pharmacist then presses the ‘send’ button, feeding the information to the dispensary software.

“Within 10 seconds, the robotic arm collects all the medication and drops it into the dispenser, and the pharmacist collects it and gives it to the patient,” Setshedi says.

The robotic arm has not only reduced waiting times but has also largely eliminated errors and freed up time for pharmacists to interact with patients.

In the past, pharmacists spent a lot of time trying to figure out doctors’ handwriting, and walking up and down to the dispensary to collect the medicine.

Setshedi shares the story of a pharmacist who was so tired that she accidentally prescribed medication that’s only supposed to be taken as a single dose at night – and told the patient to take one in the morning and one at night. But he says with the robotic arm in charge of selecting medicine, the situation has changed.

“Pharmacists now have plenty of time to interact with patients and to check for drug interaction between the medications prescribed by doctors because they never leave their stations.

“The room for error doesn’t exist any more because the machine is highly intelligent,” he said.

But the robots won’t make the pharmacists’ jobs redundant because the law requires pharmacists to evaluate scripts, dispense medication and counsel patients – and a machine cannot do that.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi told City Press recently that the government was planning to install robotic arms in all the country’s major hospitals in a bid to reduce waiting times.

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