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11/16/2001

Pharmacy Robot Fills Dispensing Role

Kate Traynor

At Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, where a robot handles most of the pharmacy’s repetitive dispensing tasks, technician trainer Tricia Roth has found her mechanized coworker to be a valuable member of the team.

Children’s Robot-Rx, which was manufactured by McKesson Corp. and installed in 1997, allows the pharmacy staff to concentrate on compounding pharmaceuticals for patients.

"We’re a pediatric hospital, and so we do lots of compounding," she said.

The robot fills most of the unit dose carts for the 322-bed medical center and handles most of the requests for the initial dose of medication, Roth said.

"We do three different cart fills during the day," she said. The robot fills each cart cycle in about 45 minutes, and the human members of the staff later add items that cannot be placed in the robot. "Then we check it all before we send up the cart."

But human hands are still needed to keep the medication doses flowing through the system, she said. Restocking the robot's work area, a once- or twice-daily task, takes about an hour to an hour and a half each time.

"We’ve got tablets in there. We’ve got vials of vitamin E.... We have syringes filled with liquids," Roth said. One person's entire job is to package items for the robot, she noted.

Roth said Children’s is a big proponent of bar coding and that the robot plays a role in this patient-safety effort. Each patient is assigned a unique bar code, and the robot uses that code to correctly match medications with patients.

The pharmacy relies on the robot’s manufacturer to do the monthly maintenance, Roth said. For day-do-day upkeep, the person who handles computer operations also takes charge of the robot.

Problems with the robot have usually been attributed to human error, Roth said, and the issues have generally been minor.

"We’ve never had a time when she’s shut down on us," Roth said. "It’s always picky things she doesn’t like. The robot doesn’t like the bar code, or…we didn’t package [the medication] correctly."

Roth sees the use of the robot as fitting into the evolution of pharmacy practice.

"As the pharmacist’s role changes," she said, "the technician’s role is changing as well. And so we can kind of grow into things where, before, we were kind of limited."

Roth acknowledged that some pharmacy technicians may regard robots with suspicion.

"It can be kind of scary for technicians thinking, ‘Oh, well, it’s taking my job,’" Roth said. But, she added, "you have to realize that it’s about the patient getting the right medication. And there are still other things that we’re able to do."