$1.5 Million Pharmacy Robot Promises to Reduce Medical Drug Errors

April 28, 2008

A new pharmacy robot at Loyola University Hospital is designed to eliminate the type of life-threatening human medication errors that injured actor Dennis Quaid’s newborn twins.

Loyola’s pharmacy recently began filling patient prescriptions with the two-armed, $1.5 million dollar robot. The robot places single doses of medication in small plastic bags. Each bag has a bar code that identifies the drug. When the system is fully implemented, the nurse will scan the bar code on the medication bag, along with the bar code on the patient’s wrist band. If the computer detects it’s the wrong drug or wrong dose, a pop-up warning will appear and the computer will sound an alert.

Hospitals around the country are beginning to use robotics in the pharmacy. Loyola is the first hospital in the Midwest to use the most advanced system of its kind. It’s called PillPick, manufactured by SwissLog Healthcare Solutions.

“We looked at five systems, and this one was the most innovative,” said Richard Ricker, administrative director of the pharmacy department, Loyola.

The system is 28 feet long and 13 feet wide. At the front end, a robot arm packages medications in single-dose bags. At the back end, a patient’s medication bags are arranged in order of administration and attached to a plastic ring. A card attached to the ring specifies each drug, along with important patient information.

The robot packages 3,200 medications, including tablets, capsules, vials, ampules and suppositories. It works around the clock.

The robot is designed to eliminate the type of serious human error involving Quaid’s twins last November. The infants were supposed to receive 10 units per millimeter of the blood thinner Heparin. Instead they received 10,000 units. The 10-unit vials and 10,000-unit vials looked similar, and a pharmacy technician mistakenly placed them in the same drawer.

Another common mistake is to mix up drugs with similar spellings, such as hydrocortisone, which treats inflammation, and hydrochlorothiazide, which treats fluid retention.

A 2006 Institute of Medicine report estimated that hospital medication errors injure 400,000 people per year, causing $3.5 billion in extra medical costs.

The robot will not eliminate pharmacy jobs. Instead, it will free up pharmacists so they can spend more time monitoring drug therapy and working with patients, nurses and doctors.

“By improving efficiencies, our robot will allow pharmacists to be deployed to nursing units for better patient care,” said Gwen Volpe, RPh., automation project manager.

Source: Loyola University Health System

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