Pharmaceutical method utilizes robots to save lives

When University of California, San Francisco wanted to increase patient safety, it turned to robotic technology and electronics for superior mechanical efficiency. Today, giant robots count and process the medications received by patients at UCSF Medical Center.

“A robot picking medications makes less than 1 error per million doses picked,” Lynn Paulsen, director of pharmaceutical services at UCSF, wrote in an email. “The best manual systems cannot get close to those numbers. Most run a picking error rate of 0.5-1.5% and requires a second check.”

The new robotic pharmacy has prepared 350,000 doses of medication during its introductory period and not a single error has occurred since its implementation in October 2010.

Mark Laret, chief executive officer at UCSF, said hospital patients in the country face no greater risk than the potential of a medication error.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, approximately 7,000 deaths result each year from medication errors in hospitals.

The JAMA said medical errors may be the third leading cause of death in the United States.

“The advantage of a robotic pharmacy is that it eliminates the potential for human error,” Laret said in a press release.

According to Paulsen, the equipment at the robotic pharmacy is valued at $7 million.

“The funds came from the medical center’s capital budget,” she said. “This money is generated by patient care and gets re-invested into improving the hospital infrastructure.”

An automated pill dispenser was implemented at SF State’s Student Health Services Center in August 2008.

“The dispenser is like a whole other technician,” said pharmacist Lien Ho. “But doesn’t take a lot of space.”

Ho said the robotic dispenser, valued at approximately $20,000, stores 48 different medications.

Carol Brewer, an administrative analyst at the University’s health center said the pill dispenser helped meet the high demand for medications at SF State and resolves safety as well as space issues behind the counter.

Like SF State,  Paulsen said hospitals throughout California have robotic components in their pharmacies. However, UCSF is one of less than 10 medical centers with a full robotic program

Aside from providing a more efficient pharmaceutical service, UCSF’s transition to robotic technology allows pharmacists and nurses to focus more of their expertise on patient care as opposed to processing and dispensing medications.

The robotic pharmacy frees the pharmacist from the mechanical work and allows him or her to directly observe and manage a patient’s drug therapy, Paulsen said.

She said the robots, which are housed in a tightly secured and sterile environment, can also fill IV syringes or bags with medications and prepare toxic chemotherapy drugs, thereby eliminating the contamination from pharmacist and the environment to the patient.

“The purpose of the robots is not to eliminate positions but to improve the quality and accuracy of the drug products,” Lynn said. “Pharmacists will be able to spend more time making sure the patient’s medication regimens are optimized.”

What is the new pharmaceutical procedure?

According to UCSF’s website, computers at the new pharmacy electronically receive medication prescriptions from physicians and pharmacists.

The robots then pick, package and dispense individual drugs.

Finally, the robotic machines organize and barcode a patient’s medication doses onto a thin plastic ring.

Nurses at UCSF Medical Center are scheduled to begin using barcode readers to scan the medication this fall, according to the website.

Pediatric pharmacist Sarah Scarpace Lucas at UCSF agrees that the robotic pharmacy allows her to do more tasks with patients rather than behind the counter.

“This process gives medications one extra double check we couldn’t do,” she said. “The new pharmacy provides safer care to patients and a better work flow.”

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