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Is the future of pharmacy under threat from technology?

The future of pharmacy has been an ongoing discussion for some years. The advances in technology of all kinds, and their impact on the profession, are a serious concern. With advances in artificial intelligence and ‘fuzzy’ logic (an approach to computing based on ‘degrees of truth’), and in logistics and supply (e.g. advances in the design, and use of drones), we must be concerned for the future of pharmacy.

Imagine the following scenario: the patient is interviewed by the GP (via the internet, possibly by a GP avatar) and is prescribed a medicine. The prescription is sent electronically to a central dispensary where it is picked, labelled and checked against the patient’s records for drug interactions, etc. The dispensed medicine is then packed into a shipper, loaded on to a drone and delivered to the patient’s address. Before the medicine can be taken from the shipper, the patient would complete a ‘medicines awareness’ test, via the internet on how to use their medicine properly. (This scenario is not perfect; I simply use it as an illustration.)

This may seem far-fetched, and I do not believe it is going to happen immediately, but it could happen someday. Much of the technology already exists, some may need further refinement, other parts are still to be developed. We may not like it, but we have to be aware of the potential.

Where is the pharmacist in all this? Would pharmacists be needed with the use of universal barcodes, etc? I do not see independent community pharmacies constructing a fully automated central dispensary. I am not sure the major chains could finance such a programme on a national basis (but, in collaboration with Amazon?). Perhaps community pharmacy still has a future, but for how long?

We must also consider the future of pharmacy education. We currently have 31 schools of pharmacy in the UK. If my ‘doomsday’ scenario were to become reality, how many pharmacists would we need for the community, including GP practices, and hospital services, and how many would industry require? More importantly, how many pharmacy graduates would we need each year?

R. Christian Moreton

Waltham, Massachusetts, United States

Disclosure: Dr Moreton is vice-president of pharmaceutical sciences at Finnbrit Consulting, which provides advice on drug development and excipients.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2017.20203135

Readers' comments (1)

  • I take a great interest in the subject of automation and its effects on the job markets of multiple industries, and I think this is a situation which is unfortunate for pharmacists and future pharmacists, but realistic.
    I would like to add that by the time this technology becomes widespread, pharmacists will not be the only ones feeling the strained labour market; indeed, any job which can be broken down into smaller routine tasks can be automated, including lawyers, civil servants, engineers, medics.

    What I would say is this; we can still be confident that our people skills will be, for the foreseeable future, better than those of a machine. I think the future of pharmacy will be salvaged if we continue to become more patient-centered and more patient-focussed.

    One example I like is that of the community pharmacist as a neighbourhood wellbeing guru, who can listen to what patients want to achieve through pharmaceutical therapy (quitting smoking, losing weight, feeling more awake) and deliver personal care in a two-way dialogue with the patient.

    This, of course, is not the only model where pharmacists could fit into a post-automation world, but I believe if we get creative and make the passionate case for where pharmacists can be more efficient than machines, we will come out of this for the better.

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