Many pharmacy students or prospective pharmacy students wonder if automation or robots will replace pharmacists. This may be a concern for those who wonder if there will be enough jobs available by the time they graduate from pharmacy colleges. It’s a valid question to ask for anyone who is pursuing a career, whether it would be for nurses, security personnel, delivery workers, or even taxi drivers. In this age of highly developed technology and innovation, it is something job-seekers could probably think about and perhaps even do some more research as we see automation everyday in our daily lives around us. Technology seems to be improving each year with more efficiency, accuracy, and less technical problems. The grocery store checkout lines with more automated self-check-out areas replacing cashiers. ATMs readily available 24/7 replacing bank tellers. Amazon experimenting with drone delivery, and even some innovative companies making headlines with testing driverless vehicles. Not only do we see automation replacing workers, but we are also witnessing other types of technology replacing the traditional model of business. Plug-and-play wireless technologies implemented in the areas of home security camera installations as opposed to using traditional home security installers. Streaming wireless television replacing traditional cable television. Online shopping such as Amazon or travel websites replacing the brick-and-mortar retailers and the travel agent, respectively. Now with these great advances in practically every sector of society, how will this impact the pharmacist profession?
One way to look at this is how current pharmacy businesses and services operate today, and to identify solutions to current problems, or ways to improve the current model even if there are no issues. Some of the goals of technology are to cut down on costs, time, and inefficiencies, and provide transparent and meaningful data to allow the users and operators to detect errors or trends in order to improve a “system.” We can apply this to the pharmacy service model in retail and hospital, and suggest possible solutions, and its potential ramifications to the pharmacy workforce if such solutions are implemented. Here are a few common problems or areas that could be improved in the retail and hospital pharmacy setting:
Long Lines/Waiting: Prescription dispensing machines, similar to bank ATMs, could potentially reduce the need for a 24/7 pharmacy drive-thru or checkout counter. Mail-order, already available from many pharmacies, may also increase in wide-spread use which would limit the need for brick-and-mortar pharmacy retailers. Similar to Amazon, a customer may simply login to their account, and set up active prescriptions to be refilled and mailed on a scheduled monthly basis.
Limited Staffing: Widespread use of integrated and compatible prescription transmission from the doctor’s offices directly to the pharmacy software could reduce the need for the patient/customer to go to the pharmacy in-person, and cut-down on pharmacy personnel needed to receive the written prescription from the customer. Robotic counters, packagers, and fillers could replace the need for human pharmacists or technicians to manually fill routine or daily refilled medications for customers to pickup from the pharmacy. Mail-order pharmacies (as discussed above) may resolve the need for some staffing.
Missing Medications: Utilization of advanced automated dispensing cabinets or machines housed in hospital units for common medications could reduce the need to deliver medications, and the time required to find missing medications or replace medications that are not found after delivery. This is a potential area needed of improvement, for which a solution may not necessarily reduce the pharmacy workforce or affect it at all.
Delayed Medication Delivery: As noted above, usage of automated dispensing cabinets or machines in hospital units may reduce the need to deliver medications, thus reducing the need for transporters to deliver medications from the pharmacy to the hospital units. However, pharmacy personnel would still be required to continually refill the automated dispensing cabinets if dispensing is highly utilized within the hospital unit.
Limited Staffing: Advanced software systems could automatically review medication appropriateness before final pharmacist sign-off. Robotic counters and fillers could replace the need for human pharmacists or technicians to manually fill routine or daily refilled medications for patients.
Cart filling medications: Robotic counters and fillers could replace the need for human pharmacists or technicians to manually fill routine or daily refilled medications for patients.
It may come as no surprise, and maybe even expected that there will probably be some usage of automation in the pharmacy practice setting in the future. Advances in technology allow companies or owners to save money, while also potentially improving patient/consumer safety; this may be due to reduced medication errors from the use of intelligent medication information systems and faster delivery times. Similar to automation in grocery store checkout lines and bank ATMs, or even customer service agents assisting with online services, we could witness a hybrid model of human/machine model where a few workers (e.g. pharmacists/technicians) would oversee and manage a mass of automated machines and/or software systems; this could have some impact on the workforce. However, this may not always be the case as improvements in information technology such as intelligent medication information systems which provides essential medication resources (drug to drug interactions, potential adverse events, allergic reactions, etc.) allows pharmacists to save time by avoiding timely research in manually trying to find important and relevant information. Integrated pharmacy software such as computerized pharmacy order entry (CPOE) software also allows pharmacists to avoid serious transcription errors, save time, and allows the pharmacist to focus more thoroughly on reviewing medication orders. On the flip-side, automation may not always have a serious impact on the workforce as it could also present more opportunities for pharmacists to expand on clinical duties, thus improving the safety and wellness of patients. Higher usage of automated and robotic systems may present new opportunities to other sectors such as engineers and technical support specialists who may be needed to develop and maintain such technologies.