August 29, 2006
by Dr. Max Gomez
New York -- By now robots are familiar sights on car assembly lines, vacuuming our floors, even helping surgeons in the operating room. But one place where robots can really save lives is where you might least expect it. In the pharmacy.
It looks a lot like the automated pill manufacturing we've all seen before, but take a closer look. This is the hospital pharmacy of the future. It's an effort to address what the prestigious institute of medicine says is a major source of injury in hospitals - patients getting the wrong drug or the wrong dose.
"They estimate that about 1.5 million medication errors that actually harm patients occur across the country every year," says Dr. Alan Aviles, NYC Health And Hospitals.
So New York city's health and hospitals corporation is spending millions of dollars on systems to eliminate those errors. It starts at the front end, where doctors first order medications.
"Many medications sound like other medications, so if I write them and my handwriting isn't perfect it can easily be misinterpreted by the pharmacist such that they might give the wrong medication," says Dr. David Rand.
That's why prescriptions are entered on the computer, which also double-checks the dose the doctor orders, alerts him to any possible drug interactions or allergies the patient might have and so on. "It alerts me to that fact so I can then rethink if this is the medication I wish to prescribe and in this case, of course, I would not go forward," Rand says.
The electronic order then goes to the central pharmacy where robotics count and dispense the right pills into bottles already labeled with the patient's information.
Digital photos are taken of the pills and checked by human pharmacists for correctness. But even before all this, as medications are put into the automated bins, bar codes are compared and even the weight of the pills have to match up.
And out on the patient floor, a system is being installed where bar codes on the nurses ID, the patient's bracelet, the drug packet and the time must all be cleared by a computer before the medicine is given.
Obviously, the robo-pharmacist is only part of the overall system that the city's health and hospitals corporation has installed to reduce medication errors.
The city's public hospitals are in the elite 6% of hospitals nationwide that have the technology recommended buy the Institute of Medicine and have reduced medication errors by 40% in just the first year of electronic ordering.