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As one of the busiest parts of a hospital, the pharmacy has, over the years, relied on technology to streamline its operations. From electronic tablet counters to completely computerized stocking and labeling solutions, technology has had a transformative impact on pharmacies across the world.
Still, factors weighing on the efficiency of drug dispensing are increasing every day. Rising labor costs and shortages, a growing geriatric population and the urgent need to reduce medical errors, all call for more innovation and flexibility in the healthcare industry.
And that is what China’s Shanghai Seventh People’s Hospital set out to do. The hospital – which offers comprehensive medical care using traditional Chinese and Western medicine – collaborated with RBR50 company ABB to research the use of robots and automation systems in hospitals, labs and pharmacies. The hospital now has two robots that dispense drugs more accurately than their human counterparts.
In a small glass room at the hospital’s inpatient department, two ABB robots work together to remove medicines from shelves and prepare them for distribution to patients. The automatic drug dispensing function is achieved by the synchronized movements of a robot mini load (RML) system, using an ABB IRB 2600 robot and a bin picking system with an IRB 1200 small robot that is designed to work fast in a room that is just over 16 square meters in size.
The RML takes around 10 seconds to locate and place the medicine box and can process up to 360 kits every hour, while the second robot system can pick up about 720 medicines in the same time. Both robots can work throughout the day and night.
Medical staff feed drug prescriptions into an information system that is connected to the automatic robotic pharmacy setup. Once the prescription flashes on a screen, the IRB 2600 quickly locates the required medicine box using the shortest path possible, removes it and hands it over to its fellow robot pharmacist, the IRB 1200. Powered by 3D vision, the IRB 1200 picks out the medicines according to the prescription from the box and places them into a basket located on the other side of the set up. A conveyor delivers the basket to a human pharmacist, who makes one final check of the content before sending it out for delivery.
The IRB 1200’s 3D vision technology enables it to automatically switch fixtures according to the shape of the medicine box. The robot uses two types of vacuum grippers – one to pick up medicine boxes and the other to handle more delicate medicine glass vials. The robot is also equipped with machine learning capabilities to improve the accuracy of its selection and picking tasks over time. Once the correct medicines have been picked and placed, the IRB 2600 returns the medicine box to its designated shelf. The two robots only pause when all the required medicines have been placed in the basket.
“This is our new set of ‘smart’ weapons to serve all of our inpatients,” said Shi Rongrong, the deputy director of the hospital’s pharmacy department.
Chinese regulations that require only qualified pharmacists to dispense drugs have caused a shortage of trained professionals who can work in pharmacies. This, coupled with a lack of interest in repetitive, boring work such as inventory registration, has made it expensive to run pharmacies manually. ABB analysis shows that repetitive tasks could be completed up to 50 percent faster with automation, compared to current manual processes, with the added benefit that robots can work 24 hours a day. Instead of spending hours filling up prescriptions, human workers can perform more rewarding tasks that require human judgment.
Drug dispensing robots can also reduce the margin of error that is unavoidable during manual operations. Images stored via the 3D vision camera system offers 100% traceability of every single medicine that has been processed by the system, thereby enhancing safety of the whole pharmaceutical process.
Finally, the system enables the hospital to conduct real-time drug inventory management. If the robot detects the absence of a drug, the system automatically prompts a re-supply of the required medicines, enabling drugs to be delivered faster to patients.
The compact design and modular nature of the robotic pharmacy enables the setup to move around the the Seventh People’s Hospital according to need. In order to provide patients with efficient diagnosis, treatment, and healthcare services, Shanghai Seventh People’s Hospital is using the latest automation, digital, and smart technologies to transform the healthcare sector into an efficient, effective industry.
Vice President Gao Xiaoyan added: “At present, we have achieved the automatic dispensing of drugs at the pharmacy, and we plan to use robots to deliver drugs to the inpatient wards, to complete the pharmacy work loop. Additionally, in the hospital’s PIVAS (pharmacy intravenous admixture service), medical staff must dispense chemotherapeutic drugs which are harmful to the human body. Moreover, some drugs are only effective within a short period of time after they are dispensed. We will consider using robots to take over these tasks, to protect our staff as well as improve the time-effectiveness and safety of PIVAS.”