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P2-D2: the pharmacist of the future?

February 6, 1996
Web posted at: 11:55 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Ann Kellan

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- In these days of skyrocketing medical costs, health care professionals are constantly looking for more efficient ways to run hospitals. Now, with the advent of a new technology, the prescription for improved pharmacies may be a druggist with a heart of silicon.

Robot pharmacist

This robot -- actually, an automated dispensing system -- is the next generation of hospital caregiver, and Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital calls him P2-D2, for Piedmont Pharmacy Dosage Dispenser. Already, P2-D2 works more than 16 hours a day. Within the next two months, he'll be on the job around the clock, using bar-code technology to fill hospital medication orders.

Robot screen

"It knows which patient is in which room and it will generate a bar code telling you that patient's name and their room number," said Debbie Massara, Piedmont's senior management engineer. "The bar code is put on a plastic cassette which is placed on a conveyor. The robot knows which drugs have been ordered for which patient."

Piedmont Hospital is one of more than three dozen hospitals around the country substituting a prescription robot for a traditional pharmacist. "The automation process was something that we looked at to become more efficient and to prevent medication errors," said Irene Coletta, Piedmont's assistant director of pharmacy.

Fill screen

Most of the hospital's medication comes labeled with a bar code and pre-packaged from the distributor. A hospital technician is responsible for loading the packages onto racks. When a medication order is entered into a computer, P2-D2 bills the patient's account and then gets to work filling the prescription. (799K QuickTime movie)

The manufacturer says the prescription robot has an accuracy rate of 100 percent. The robot has filled 30 million orders with no mistakes since its introduction on the market nearly four years ago. However, hospital officials say humans should not feel threatened by the machine.

"To be honest, the first thing people feared were their jobs," Massara said. "They thought, oh no, this robot is going to replace me. But one of the neat things about the robot is showing that you can save money without cutting jobs."

Pharmacists still fill first-time medication orders, and in accordance with state medical board regulations, they still must check medication orders before they are given to each patient. But over the short term, more and more pharmacists will be freed up for other services. Coletta says they will be available to provide nurses and doctors with immediate prescription advice. (213K AIFF sound or 213K WAV sound)

The ultimate goal, the hospital says, is to use the technology to provide better care for patients.

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