can patients rely on the safety of so called pharmacy robots

When you go to the local pharmacy, you are accustomed to seeing a flurry of activity behind the counter as technicians and pharmacists alike are busy processing and preparing prescriptions. However, if you happen to notice fewer people the next time you make a pharmacy pickup, be on the lookout for a large machine situated among the shelves of medicines.

The machine in question is actually referred to as a pharmacy robot, which is designed to automatically dispense entered prescriptions. Specifically, a prescription is entered by a tech or pharmacist into the computer, which in turn prompts a robotic arm to pull a corresponding container of pills from the shelf and dispense them into a pill bottle, which is then labeled with the necessary information.

According to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, these pharmacy robots, which are being increasingly utilized by the larger national chains, dramatically cut down on the number of medication errors.

While patient advocacy groups are in agreement that pharmacy robots can and do cut down on the number of medication errors, they also point out that this is still entirely dependent on whether staff members actually load them correctly.

“A human being has to fill the machine with various kinds of medicine and they could make a mistake,” said an official with the advocacy group Public Citizen. “And if they make a mistake, the machine dispenses what it’s told to do.”

While the possibility of this happening may seem remote, consider that those pharmacies with robots installed are now typically expected by corporate management to handle a much larger prescription load on a daily basis, sometimes close to 900 a day.

In this rush to process and fill these prescriptions, there is a much greater chance of a tech or even a pharmacist accidentally loading the machine with the wrong dosage or even the wrong medication.

To illustrate, consider the following anecdotes: One pharmacy robot accidentally dispensed a cancer drug instead of fluoride tablets to upwards of 50 children, while another pharmacy robot accidentally dispensed 250-milligram tablets of an antibiotic instead of 500-milligram tablets to upwards of 60 patients.

It should be noted that experts indicate that people have no more reason to fear these pharmacy robots than they do the pharmacists or techs. However, they do recommend that, as always, patients should read the literature accompanying their prescription before taking it and compare its description with the pills actually given to them.

How do you feel about pharmacy robots? Do you trust them or would you prefer a trained professional to fill your prescription?

Source: CSN Washington, “Prescription for error? Pharmacy robots,” Feb. 24, 2014

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