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Automation and Internet of Things Transform Pharmacies

7 Jan 2016 by Teresa Meek

Does a trip to the pharmacy conjure up images of white-coated workers rushing around behind the counter and adjusting their glasses to decipher physician scripts? If so, you’re way behind the times. In honor of Pharmacist Day (January 12), we prescribe reading this article to get caught up with how the industry has evolved.

For example, at a hospital in Yuma, Arizona, pharmacists use high-definition cameras to remotely monitor the compounding of drugs inside the hospital’s cleanroom. If they see a problem, they communicate it to cleanroom technicians, whose voice-activated headsets allow them to keep working as they respond.

Medical staff don’t have to waste time delivering the drugs once they’re compounded. Robots do that 90% of the time — after doctors have submitted their electronic prescriptions and pharmacists have reviewed them to make sure there’s no conflict with patient allergies or other medications.

The hospital’s pharmacy system not only saves time, it increases accuracy. The robot has delivered more than 40 million doses without an error, staffers say.

Welcome to the new, high-tech pharmacy, where automation improves patient safety, while giving more time to pharmacists to complete complex tasks and answer patient questions.

Electronic health records and e-prescriptions

Of course, not all hospitals are as sophisticated as Yuma’s — only a third have completely migrated to electronic health records — but they’re on the path. Three-fourths use a computerized order-entry system for prescriptions, and many are also using e-prescriptions for outpatient facilities.

Electronic health records enable physicians, pharmacists and patients to communicate and keep patients on track with their prescriptions. They also cut bureaucracy and costs, especially for managing chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension.

Electronic prescriptions and drug-monitoring programs can also help prevent substance abuse, not only by finding errors, but also by recognizing a combination of controlled and non-controlled prescription use that may reveal too much opioid use.

Drugstore chains like CVS and Walmart have added walk-in clinics next to their pharmacies to bring treatment and prescription under one roof. To enable quick lab work, Walgreens partnered with fast-results-lab startup Theranos in 2013, though it is currently not expanding its program in light of recent controversy about some of that company's practices.

New frontiers

Technology is also advancing on other fronts.

Hospitals are placing remote tags on medications so that anyone with a computer can track exactly where they are at any time. Mobile apps serve as convenient repositories for providers, containing detailed information about drugs, and their interactions and side effects. The National Institutes of Health is developing an app that will let medical workers identify a pill by taking a smartphone snapshot.

Some pharmacies are working on real-time insurance benefit verification, which would allow doctors to give patients information about co-pay amounts before entering a prescription. High out-of-pocket costs are a main reason patients stop taking their medications.

With the wealth of information available on the Internet, patients can learn a lot on their own about the drugs they’re taking, becoming more empowered participants in their own care.

The future

Tomorrow’s pharmacy may use the Internet of Things and Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology to target services to patient needs with laser-like precision. Radio-frequency beacons in parking lots could send instant information to the pharmacy about the products a patient usually buys.

Microsoft is developing a "Hololens" which, among other things, could let pharmacists see patient records and prescription information by wearing special glasses. Novartis is working with Google to create a smart contact lens that can monitor blood glucose from the fluid levels in a patient’s eye and communicate that information to physicians or pharmacists via Wi-Fi.

Technologies like these could catch problems before they become serious, providing instant communication to caregivers and real-time treatment that need not involve a trip to a lab or the doctor.