Health-care institutions to use robots to pick and pack medicine

More than 15 health-care institutions, including two public hospitals, have signed deals to buy a robotic drug storage-and-dispensing machine that was on display at the recent Digital Healthcare Week 2013 exhibition.

The Rowa Vmax from Germany, which costs 70,000 euros (S$119,500) for a basic unit, picks out drugs based on their barcodes.

Manufacturer CareFusion claims there is no chance of mistakes in filling out prescriptions.

Fully automated, the machine retrieves medicine from its storage cabinet when a prescription has to be filled, automatically updates stocks and sends an alert when supplies are low.

Tan Tock Seng Hospital - part of the National Healthcare Group (NHG) - is one of the hospitals which bought the machine during the four-day exhibition, which ended yesterday at Marina Bay Sands. It has already begun the six-month process of setting it up.

Ms Chan Soo Chung, executive director of NHG Pharmacy, said: "The machine will reduce the need for humans to pick and pack medication." Employees will switch to other work instead, such as managing the machines and helping patients understand their medication, she added.

A spokesman for the National University Hospital, which has bought two units, said the machines will free pharmacy assistants and technicians to "assist pharmacists and reduce waiting time for patients".

They will also let pharmacists "spend more time interacting with patients and looking into medication related issues and concerns. This improves patient safety".

The machine's storage cabinet, which has a fixed width of 1.6m, can be as tall or as long as users need it to be. The width is fixed due to the limited reach of the robotic arm that collects the boxes of medicines from the shelf.

It can also print and label the medicine with the patient's details.

It takes about six months to set up as the machine has to be linked to the institution's internal computer system.

This way, if the hospital wants, prescriptions can also be sent straight from a doctor's consultation room, and the medicine can be waiting for the patient at the pharmacy.

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