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Pharmacy robots in UK hospitals: the benefits and implementation issues

Stephen Goundrey-Smith looks at the introduction of automated dispensing systems into UK hospitals and examines evidence for their benefits



For many years, hospital pharmacies have adopted new technologies to streamline the dispensing process. In the 1970s the introduction of electronic tablet counters based on optical light-beam technology enabled pharmacy staff to dispense large quantities of routinely used tablets, and such devices became commonplace in the 1980s.

Also in that decade, the introduction of computer systems for labelling and stock control had a profound impact on the operational and strategic management of hospital pharmacies.

In continental Europe and the US, where insurance-based healthcare systems are common, dispensing has developed on an original pack basis. Automated dispensing systems designed for original packs were devised for hospitals and healthcare facilities in Europe and America, and there is considerable experience of their implementation.

Patient pack and unit dose dispensing facilitates the use of automated systems for the storage, stock management, picking and labelling of medicines because the need for bulk dispensing of loose tablets and capsules is eliminated and an automated system can control stock on a pack-by-pack or dose-by-dose basis rather than having to maintain a complex database of pack details for every medicine.

Automated dispensing systems were not widely adopted in the UK initially because UK hospitals have traditionally had a mixed dispensing profile, with some bulk dispensing, especially of high use medicines such as paracetamol and co-codamol, together with the use of manufacturer’s original packs (of varying quantities) for other formulations.

However, as a result of European Community Directive 92/97, which became law in 1999, the past 10 years have seen a gradual move towards original pack dispensing, encouraged by various UK stakeholders. The adoption of original pack dispensing has facilitated a consistency in prescribing and pack quantities, which has made automated dispensing systems a viable possibility in UK hospital pharmacies.

However, the most significant driver for adopting automated dispensing systems in NHS hospitals is the increasing awareness of the organisational benefits that such systems can provide.

In 2001, the Audit Commission report “A spoonful of sugar: medicines management in UK hospitals” highlighted the importance of both original pack dispensing and the use of pharmacy automation to reduce risks and release pharmacy staff to perform patient-centred services.

Following publication of the Audit Commission report, a number of UK hospitals have implemented an automated dispensing system for their dispensaries. The adoption of these pharmacy robots is likely to continue over the next few years. In addition, a number of community pharmacies have adopted pharmacy robots to streamline dispensing, enabling them to address the requirements of the new pharmacy contract.

The perceived benefits of automation include:

  • A reduction in dispensing errors
  • Rationalisation of the dispensing process, leading to efficiencies in dispensary throughput and turnaround times
  • The enabling of a re-engineering of pharmacy services, which might include developing a ward-based medicines management service and decentralising the clinical pharmacy service

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 10013639

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  • Automation can release pharmacy staff to perform patient-centred services

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