Automated drug provision

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Medical errors are a serious threat to the nations health. Estimates suggest that up to 72,000 people are killed each year in medical accidents, including the provision of inaccurate drugs or doses. This could be cut significantly by the use of robotic dispensing linked to prescriptions through bar codes. Spreading fast on the continent, Dermott Reilly, healthcare business manager at UK standards body, GS1 UK, urges the UK to adopt the practice.

Research from health analyst group, Dr Foster, reported that medical errors could account for up to 72,000 deaths a year in Britain, which makes for worrying reading. Provision of the wrong kind or dose of medication to the public is just one element contributing to this high figure, often caused by look-alike and sound-alike names, similar packaging and staff working under pressure. However, prescription errors could be cut by up to 70 per cent using the deployment of a familiar technology traditionally associated with the retail sectorthe ubiquitous bar code.

Robotic dispensing

GS1 UK is the not-for-profit UK organisation promoting a global bar code standard, part of its GS1 System, which is readily seen on the back of many everyday items purchased across the world. This technology is now being linked to robotic dispensing machineswidely used across Europe with some pilots in the UK- to ensure that the right drugs and the right dose are administered to the right people in the right way.

How does it work? The patient takes a bar coded prescription into the pharmacy containing the details of exactly what drug and dosage is required. The pharmacist then scans the prescription with a reader which is linked to the pharmacy database. The information flows into the back office, the robot seeks out the correct product and drops it into the chute, which delivers it to the front counter.

This improved management of the supply chain and stockroom can lead to more shop floor space for retail opportunities, improved cash flow and better customer relations.

Not only does this cut out human error but it also allows the pharmacist to spend more time with his or her customers. In Germany around 20 per cent of high street pharmaceutical retailers now deploy automated drug provision and 10 per cent in France.

As well as reducing errors and improving patient safety, there are other business benefits for pharmacists. With robotic dispensing machines, pharmacists can keep a closer track on stocks and order new drugs as and when required. This improved management of the supply chain and stockroom can lead to more shop floor space for retail opportunities, improved cash flow and better customer relations.

Unique numbering

Underpinning automated dispensing is the GS1 System of standardised bar coding provided by GS1 UK. The system allows each product to be uniquely identified with a GS1 number represented in a bar code that can be scanned throughout the supply chain and identified automatically in the dispensary.

An example of where this technology is working successfully is at Arrowe Park, Merseyside, UK, which introduced its robotic dispensing system in January 2001.

The system is impressive to watch. The robot is housed in its own room in the centre of the pharmacy. Items are fed in manually and stacked by the robot from ground level up to a height of two to three meters, with the most commonly prescribed products stored in the most convenient areas for it to access. Products are selected by a giant picking arm and carried along a conveyor belt to one of the four drop points in the dispensary, from where a technician has generated a label. Staff rarely need to leave their workstations and the whole process from picking to dropping takes just 20 seconds.

I believe that this technology will be popular with customers, reduce the amount of fatal medical errors in Britain and further improve customer service across the pharmaceutical industry.

Quality improvements

Arrowe Park pharmacy believes that automated dispensing is responsible for reducing errors by 51 per cent, improving dispensing turnaround time and therefore allowing more pharmacy technicians to be redeployed as medicine managers on the wards.

A recent report from the Audit Commission said that significant quality improvements for patients and reduced costs can be achieved if medicines are managed across the whole health economy, including pharmacies as well as hospitals.

With robotic dispensing growing ever more commonplace in Europe, it wont be long before they become prevalent in UK pharmacies. I believe that this technology will be popular with customers, reduce the amount of fatal medical errors in Britain and further improve customer service across the pharmaceutical industry.

Dermott Reilly joined GS1 UK in April 2005 to head up the healthcare project. The NHS is going through a great period of change as the Connecting for Health programme aims to boost its IT capabilities. The GS1 System, primarily the bar code, has got the potential to enable NHS professionals to administer the right medication, to the right patient, in the right dose, at the right time. Dermott is taking these benefits to key figures within the NHS to get GS1 standards into all aspects of this sector. Dermott's background is varied, with experience in supply chain technology, traceability, consultancy and innovation across the food sector.

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