Doctors at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center look after about 600 patients on a typical day, and each of those patients, on average, take 10 different medications during their stay. More than 200 pharmacists and pharmacy technicians ensure patients receive their prescriptions. But behind the scenes is a group of pharmacy robots sorting through various medications, picking pills in the proper dosages and packaging them for nurses to administer.
"We've been focused on reducing cost and improving quality for patients for years, and technology really gives us an opportunity to do that," said UCSF Health CEO Mark Laret. "What we now have is a pill picker that fills all of the pharmaceutical orders for our patients. … And what's it really done is improved the reliability of what we do."
For years tasks like counting pills and putting them into bottles or individual packages were the purview of pharmacists, especially during the 2000s, with the boom in retail pharmacies.
Last decade the number of chain drugstores like CVS and Walgreens increased by 11 percent, to 39,000, nationwide. More than 2.5 billion prescriptions are filled annually by these stores, which employ close to 120,000 pharmacists, according to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. In addition to filling prescriptions and checking dosages, pharmacists are oftentimes the people who provide counsel to patients who have questions about the medications they've been prescribed.
"When you have a pharmacist verbally communicating with you, you're more likely to communicate and understand that information," said Mohamed Jalloh, spokesman of the American Pharmacists Association. But the new robotics pharmacy trend is taking hold at hospitals across the United States and even at community chain drugstores.