The robots are coming... to provide pharmacy services to your local area

Posted on: August 28, 2015 by

In many remote areas across the UK, access to community pharmacy services is limited. Some face a 10-mile round-trip or further to pick up their prescriptions and basic medicines or to receive care advice from pharmacies in the nearest town. When you consider that many of these people will be ill, disabled or elderly, this can be a real problem. However, advancements in robotics technology are helping to address these challenges. Here, I discuss a trial project that we’ve been involved in with the University of Aberdeen, and how robotic pharmacy services could be rolled out on a wider scale.

Robotic Pharmacy

In 2011, the University of Aberdeenshire had a vision to extend the accessibility of community pharmacy services to rural areas. Via a recommendation from the Scottish Government, we offered to help the university find the right technology solution, and since April this year, we’ve been working to make the ‘robotic pharmacy kiosk’ a reality.

Bringing the vision to life

While robotic kiosks have already been used extensively across the US for prescription collection for around a decade, no technology previously existed that would allow us to achieve the university’s vision. We needed a kiosk that would allow patients to speak directly to a pharmacist, deposit or collect a prescription and provide access to NHSS ePharmacy services such as the Minor Ailment Service.

A key challenge was to find a suitable technology partner (In this case ARX who we could work with to configure the kiosk and meet our specific requirements. We also required a secure connection between the pharmacy and the kiosk location to ensure strict patient confidentiality.

How the local community benefits

Using the kiosk, patients in the local area are now able to deposit and collect prescriptions, as well as get medical advice from a pharmacist via a video link. Now patients’ journey time is hugely reduced as they no longer have to travel to the nearest town to pick up their medicine.

Atos pharmacy kiosk patient usingThe kiosk has the capacity to hold around 400 separate items and is always stocked with the most common general medicines so they are readily available – painkillers, cough medicine and head lice treatment for instance – with two or three of each loaded into the boxes.

In addition, if a particular medicine isn’t available in the kiosk, a pharmacist will add it to the box once notified of the prescription – often on the same day. This is a vast improvement on the previous turnaround time of 48 hours.

Elsewhere, healthcare services in the local area are benefitting from the kiosk. Because patients can use the kiosk to speak directly to pharmacists and seek medical advice, GP and even A&E trips could potentially be reduced. In turn, this could lessen pressure on these services, which are often already over-stretched.

To Aberdeen and beyond…

While the trial has so far proven to be successful, there is more that could be done before we roll out the system wider. For example, in order to run the complete prescription and dispensing process through the kiosk we would need to be able to print labels – something we’ll be adding to the next model. Some of the updates would require legislation changes, but the outcome from a technology point of view will ultimately be to create a solution that can be tailored and adapted to any use case.

Atos pharmacy kiosk shown by David GreenThe potential for the kiosk to be used across other public services is something that really excites me. Imagine for example, it being used to provide an out-of-hours service in hospitals when there might not be an on-call pharmacist, or even in prisons where it could be securely deployed in the wall to provide an efficient, cost-effective and safe way for prisoners to access medical advice and prescriptions. Another use would be in train stations, where you could deposit a prescription in a kiosk at the start of a long journey and receive a text during the day to inform you the items are ready for collection upon your return – including, if required, access to a Community Pharmacist via your device or the kiosk as part of the service.

The kiosk shows us just one application of how technology is being used to improve the quality of life for local citizens. Considering how it could be amplified further, not only wider across Scotland, but also within other public services, is something that I am truly looking forward to seeing play out over the next few years. Watch this space!

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