Vending Machines Dispense Prescription Drugs

Vending machines are doling out healthier snacks, and prescription drugs, too.

InstyMeds machines, which dispense antibiotics, inhalers and sometimes powerful painkillers, have popped up at hospitals and clinics across the country, giving patients immediate, round-the-clock access to medications.

Instead of going to  pharmacies, patients enter a security code that details their prescriptions and insurance coverage. A quick swipe of a debit or credit card, and the machine dispenses the medication in a prepackaged, labeled container. According to the company’s website, InstyMeds offers the “safety and security of an ATM with the simplicity of a soda machine.”

“When you need an anti-diarrhea medication, you don’t want to wait an hour,” said InstyMeds CEO Brad Schraut. ‘If you’re sick, you’re in pain, you want that medication now.”

InstyMeds machines can hold up to 102 drugs for acute ailments, such as injuries and infections. They don’t dispense drugs for lingering conditions  such as  high-blood pressure or diabetes.

“We don’t do chronic or refill drugs,” said Schraut. “We believe patients should be seeing a pharmacist for all their refills. But in an ER, for people who hurt themselves that day, InstyMeds can give them their prescription safely and quickly.”

Some pharmacists argue the automated service is no replacement for their expertise.

“If you take the health care practitioner out of the delivery of care and circumvent them with technology — no matter how smart the machine, no matter how good the doctor — it is the pharmacist who has the expertise and knowledge to consult with a patient,” Jon Roth, CEO of the California Pharmacists Association, told the Chicago Tribune.

A recent survey by Consumer Reports found that nearly half of Americans take at least one prescription drug. But nearly half of them skimp on medications by not filling prescriptions, skipping dosages, cutting doses in half or using expired pills.

“Studies show that up to 30 percent of prescriptions go unfilled,” said Schraut. “But 90 percent of patients who get an InstyMeds security code end up getting their medications. If people have better access to medications, they get them and they take them.”

About 200 medical facilities in 34 states rent the machines, which have correctly filled 1.4 million prescriptions, according to the company’s website. Included in the monthly rental fee of up to $1,500  is 24/7 phone access to a pharmacist or pharmacy technician.

“We’re not replacing pharmacists; we’re using them in a different role,” said Schraut. “One pharmacist can serve many locations.”

Schraut said 99 percent of calls are about   insurance coverage, not medical guidance.

InstyMeds stemmed from company founder Dr. Ken Rosenblum’s struggle to find a late-night pharmacy to fill his feverish son’s prescription for antibiotics.

“There’s nothing worse than having a sick child and not being able to fill a prescription,” said Schraut, himself a father of four. “And they never get sick Monday-to-Friday, 8-to-8.”