Why Pharmacists Should Embrace Technology That Could Put Them Out of a Job

May 15, 2015

If dispensing can be automated with high accuracy, will there be a need for pharmacists in the future?

An increasing proportion of medicines require little to no intervention by pharmacists. Fewer and fewer drugs need to be compounded, mixed, diluted, or otherwise prepared. Many medications just need to be labeled and dispensed to the patient, and then billed to insurance companies.

Meanwhile, technology has become omnipresent in pharmacy, from computer-generated labels to machines that can automate almost the entire dispensing process. Many of the newest automated dispensing systems can complete up to 7 of the 13 prescription-filling steps traditionally performed by a pharmacy employee in less than 1 minute per prescription.1

Computers made their debut in retail pharmacies in the early 1980s, and robotics have been used to help dispense medications since the 1990s. The accuracy of such automated technologies is impressive. For instance, there is 1 error in every 50 prescriptions filled at a traditional retail pharmacy, while an automated mail-order pharmacy makes approximately 1 error in every 1500 prescriptions filled.1,2

If dispensing can be automated with such accuracy, will there be a need for (human) pharmacists in the future? To me, the answer is: only if we allow it to happen.

The more omnipresent automation becomes in medicine, the more pharmacists can focus their attention on using their clinical knowledge to perform uniquely human tasks. By allowing machines to perform simple, monotonous, and repetitive tasks, pharmacists can focus more of their time on counseling patients and working with health care providers to enhance patient-centered care.

Robots cannot interact with the diverse and dynamic environments of health care facilities with the same reliability as humans. Concurrently, the face-to-face dynamic of a patient-professional interaction is solely a human function.

Pharmacists need to capitalize on this and demonstrate their value in every interaction possible. They should continue to make their presence known and appreciated by patients and health care professionals alike.

As the population continues to expand in size and use of medicines, the need for pharmacists in advising patients and providers on medication information will be greater than ever. It is important that pharmacists do not take a passive attitude and assume their role can never be usurped by a computer.

The pharmacist will continue to play an essential role in health care—not despite technology, but because of it. Pharmacists must take a proactive approach in becoming even more integrally involved in patient care and expanding their role in health care teams.

The pharmacy profession should embrace technology, as it has implications to relieve pharmacists of simple and often administrative tasks and allow them to become more clinically productive. With their increased free time, pharmacists should promote the personal, face-to-face consultation and interactions that only a human can deliver to patients.

As long as the pharmacist fulfills the role of a drug specialist, patients and colleagues will rely on the profession for its services, keeping our jobs safe in the future.

References

1. J.R. Teagarden et al. “Dispensing Error Rate in a Highly Automated Mail-service Pharmacy Practice.” Pharmacotherapy. 2005, 1629 -1635.

2. E. Flynn, et al. “National Observational Study of Prescription Dispensing Accuracy and Safety in 50 Pharmacies.” Journal of the American Pharmacists Association. Vol. 43, No. 2, March-April 2003, 191-200.