Robopharmacist Fills Error-free Prescriptions

Having a worker who doesn’t make mistakes is a dream for any company.

In Blount County, Tenn., one high-tech employee is setting some inhuman standards.

“He doesn’t give us much back talk and down time is very limited,” says Don Milsaps, staff pharmacist at Blount Memorial Hospital, in Maryville.

“He’s busy,” says Debbie McNelly, a pharmacy technician. “He’s very busy.”

Robots Work Hard

So busy, this worker at 200-bed Blount hospital works 24 hours a day with no lunch breaks or vacation time.

Meet “Fill More,” so named by the Blount staff. The $500,000 machine, a pharmacy robot, makes dispensing medicine there more efficient and 30 percent more accurate than with humans.

“[It] can take the information that we input from a physician’s order and fill the patient’s medication with 100 percent accuracy,” says Milsaps.

Accuracy is obviously very important when dealing with patients.

“The medications that we use can be very helpful, but if you give the wrong medication or get the wrong dose, it can be very harmful for a patient,” says Jeanne Ezell, director of pharmacy.

“You can try real hard not to make mistakes, but you know, you will make a few, but hopefully not very many,” McNelly says. “But that’s the real advantage about having him.”

Fill More can process 350 different drug items, or about 80 percent of the hospital’s stock. Human pharmacists still have to fill certain prescriptions, such as those that deal with liquid medications, since the robot cannot pour.

It Relies on Bar Code Technology

The robot, which is 12 feet in diameter and floor-to-ceiling in height, works closely with human pharmacy employees, who give “him” the prescription that “he” processes.

His robotic arm swings out from a column-shaped home base and uses bar code technology to find among the pharmacy shelves the appropriate envelope that has been pre-filled by the robot to contain a single dose for the patient. Hospitals, unlike pharmacies, provide unit doses for patients.

Manufactured by McKessonHBOC Inc., of San Francisco, the robotic pharmacist or Robot-Rx, is currently used in 250 hospitals in North America, according to spokesman Larry Kurtz. Blount has had its device for two years.

Robot-RX has been on the market for five years, but the company has a new adjunct technology on the market, called AcuScan-Rx. It is similar to a personal digital assistant with a bar code reader. Located at the bedside, a nurse scans the prescription envelope’s bar code and the patient’s wrist bracelet to ensure the right drug is going into the right person.

Ten hospitals are now employing this technology, Kurtz says.

But some employees say working side-by-side with a robot has required some adjustment.

“It took me a while to get used to him,” says McNelly.

“It required that we have an open mind about technology,” says Milsaps. “But it’s worked for the better.”

ABCNEWS’ Kimberly O’Neal of WATE, in Knoxville, Tenn., and’s Robin Eisner contributed to this report.