Experts Discuss How Automation Has Impacted Pharmacy Technicians

In a panel, pharmacy technicians across the world discuss the role of automation in United States, Portugal, and the United Kingdom.

Q: How is automation impacting the role of technicians?

João José Joaquim: It's quite different between community and hospital in Portugal, we have a certain level of automation in hospital already, and this allows to get more time for hazardous tasks. It's also important for safety. I think like the automation can help on that point. Also, the linkage with the nurseries and kind of documentation that can help also the nurses for administration. The management is in favor of the role of the pharmacy, but we have technology that can help us to deal better with the availability of drugs. At community pharmacies, it's very low, the automation, in Portugal. I's basically for stockage, stock of medicines. For now, everything is made by humans in community pharmacy, and I don't think that will change in the next few years here.

Samantha Quaye: In the UK, I would say we've probably got a bit more parity across community and hospitals, in terms of the automation in when I think of dispensing robots, for example. When the dispensing is done, there are some robots that now have the barcodes that do the accuracy checks, so that final check that we would ordinarily have had to literally look at, has now kind of been barcoded. Those things are coming in. We have electronic cabinets for stock control, and automatic ordering. So that kind of, again, helps with the same messaging in terms of increased efficiency, and also safety. Taking out that human error is part of this, but that is as long as everything is programmed and works accordingly, as humans will, they tried to find a kind of a way around things, and then to try and improve efficiency, but sometimes that can have a negative effect.

It's just making sure that those things are in place and are safe, and I think pharmacy technicians, generally, we are quite practical and hands on, I'm speaking generically across the whole profession, but I think that tends to be why people go into the profession so we can then troubleshoot provide that support and training as well as the practical aspects of delivering. The advances in technology are, if you think back even 10 years, it's huge, and I think that's only going to increase and the same with AI. There'll be algorithms to help with diagnosis. Then things could be triage to a medic to a pharmacist or pharmacy technician, the most appropriate person to provide the health care that's needed. Those things are coming they're in development at the moment. Also, we need to think about from a patient perspective, wearables are advancing. When you think about the diabetes monitors that monitor blood glucose, that's life changing for a patient, and it doesn't necessarily need to be a pharmacist or a medic that reviews the diabetes care for that patient. Largely, the patient can take control of that, and then they could be, again, triage to the most appropriate health care professional. I think there are lots of advances coming and there is a place for pharmacy technicians in delivery of care that is supported by automation and AI.

Tiffany Kofroth: I'd have to agree with both of what they said. Automation is one of those things where it's always advancing. On the retail side, I remember my retail days long, long ago, but we had always had some type of machine that would assist us in counting the medications of faster movers, things that were medications that we knew that we were going to dispense to many patients throughout the day. The robotic machine would already count those out, put it into a pill bottle, the technicians would really, I think where the phrase comes from slap a label on it, and then, send it to the pharmacist to check. That still exists in the retail setting, and then you also have all the barcode scanning for patient safety, making sure the right medication is going to the right patient along with cameras that take picture of the actual medication in the bottle, so everything is stored within the system, so that if a patient does have a question and say is this the medication that I was supposed to receive? Everything is in a database so the pharmacy can go back at it and say, “this was the medication that was supposed to look like this is what you received? Yes, you did receive the proper medication.” Even not being with the actual patients, so that's very helpful.

On the hospital side, you also have the dispensing robots that perform both non-chemotherapy and chemotherapy medications, so a much safer perspective from a compounding standard. However, your hospital does have to have the budget for them because they are very pricey. If we were in a perfect natio, everybody would have those, but we are not. It all depends also on the hospital's budget and what resources they have within our institution. We do not have any compounding robots; all of our technicians do all of the sterile compounding, non-chemotherapy or chemotherapy.

However, we do have a TPN compounder so their total parenteral nutrition because we have an extensive ICU and pediatric area. We do make our TPMs on site and they are delivered, and they are compounded by a pharmacy technician who runs all the equipment. They do any kind of service to the actual machine, things like that. Then also within the nursing pods. Our pharmacy extends out to them. Those automatic dispensing cabinets that are in the nursing pods, pharmacies responsible for them. So, any kind of maintenance, refilling medications, that really does provide a relief for the pharmacy staff because the nursing staff or the providers do not need to contact the pharmacy for every single medication, they can get it out there when they need to, but there are specific roles for a pharmacy technician along with the care of these this equipment. As we get more equipment in, we have more technicians that are put into that role to help service those equipment items.