Monday, August 16, 2010

Pointless Invention

Today I saw what is possibly the most pointless piece of "time-saving" technology ever.

Sainsburys are trialling Prescription Vending Machines. You log in with your fingerprint and/or ID number, put your prescription into the machine, and get your drugs out.

On the face of it, wonderful. I get pretty much the same incredibly common drugs every four weeks and it would save me about twenty minutes a month if I could insert my prescription into a slot with one hand and pick up my tablets with the other.

Then I saw this BBC piece on how it actually works (that link goes to a video piece, I haven't yet found a written article). I'll do a step-by-step description, with what happens when I use the human pharmacy in italic text and the way the machine works in bold.

I go to the pharmacy counter, write the date and sign the prescription form, and hand it to a pharmacy worker (not the pharmacist) who tells me how long it is likely to take. If it's five minutes, I hang around and wait, if it's half an hour they give me a collection ticket and I'll find something else to do and come back later.
I go to the pharmacy vending machine, write the date and sign the prescription form. I mess about for a little while logging into the system (assuming I'm at a height where I can see the screen, and have a level of vision which allows me to see and use a touch-screen interface). Then I put my prescription into a special envelope (assuming there's nothing wrong with my hands)and post it into the little slot. The machine prints off a collection ticket telling me how long I will have to wait.

So far, the machine is taking longer. But what happens next is even better - and it ensures that the wait will never be as short as five minutes. Let's assume my waiting time is 30 minutes and I've wandered off...

The pharmacy assistant places my prescription at the back of a prescriptions box. The pharmacist himself is taking prescriptions from the front and dealing with them one by one. Eventually he gets to mine. He enters my prescriptions into the computer, to make sure none of them clash (this extra layer of checking by a fresh person and a separate computer is why GPs don't tend to give out drugs directly), measures out the drugs, puts them into a paper bag, seals it with a label with my name and NHS number printed on it, and places it onto a shelf which I believe is organised alphabetically for last name.
The pharmacist at the back of the machine - yes, the machine is dependent on a human being at the back of it - retrieves my special envelope, opens it, and takes out my prescription. He enters my prescriptions into the computer (is this sounding familiar yet?), measures out the drugs, puts them into a plastic baggie with my name and NHS number printed on it, and places this into the machine, which may or may not be organised alphabetically, who knows?

Yes, in true mechanical Turk style, there's still an actual qualified pharmacist doing all the actual work. The machine is just a glorified drop-box. So far the processing system is no more automated than it's been for the last ten years or so. They've just added an extra layer of ID-checking that's going to make it difficult for shorter people, people using wheelchairs, people who have trouble with their hands, people who can't see or use touch-screens, and people who are too ill to come out to collect prescriptions and have to send a friend or assistant. I bet the thing talks as well, just to exclude those with impaired hearing/auditory processing too - they might as well try and get the full house.

Anyway, half an hour or more passes and I come back to the pharmacy...

I confirm my name to the pharmacy assistant. They retrieve my bag of drugs from the shelf of prepared prescriptions, ask me to confirm my address and date of birth, and hand it over. They will advise me of any clashes (for instance that antibiotics reduce the effectiveness of the contraceptive pill) and then off I go.
I log in to the system again, assuming as before that I am able to do such a thing. The machine retrieves my bag of drugs from the high-tech shelf inside, and pushes it into the collection chamber with a little note telling me of any clashes. I open the collection chamber, retrieve my tablets, and off I go.

So it takes longer and is no more reliable than the current system, even assuming that there are no mechanical or software issues with the machines - self-checkout, anyone? Nevertheless their claim that it will enable people to skip the queues is probably correct, as the sick or disabled people unable to use the machine will still be queuing at the normal pharmacy. It's not even as if they'll save that much on staffing costs, as the machine still requires a pharmacist to do the bulk of the work and presumably an operator to empty, fill and maintain the thing.

I love technology but I really cannot see the point of this one.


Katie said...

Strangely, the system in which I hand over my prescription, sit down and listen to a couple of songs on my iPod, and the pharmacist hands over my drugs when they're ready seems to work fine for me...

I can think of at least 3 accessibility problems with the new machine for me, who does not have many access problems.

Oh well.

Tristar Products said...

The invention has an interesting idea behind it. I don’t know if it is really too practical, based on your post, at this point.

Mary said...

It is certainly an interesting idea, but having it running alongside a regular pharmacy just... doesn't make sense to me, quite apart from all the access issues.

Perhaps if your scrip could be sent to the pharmacist electronically, and you could collect it from this drop-box outside working hours? Who knows. I just can't see any clear advantages in this set-up, especially for the customer.

Raven/Missy said...

The number one business reason for this machine is (most likely) one less person requiring a salary and benefits on staff at the pharmacy. In the USA (not sure of UK) the staff behind pharmacy counters are all "pharmacy technicians". When I was one, we weren't required to be licensed because everything was checked by the pharmacist. Well now they are required to be licensed via a 2 year course. (I've heard grumbling about it becoming a 3 or 4 year course). When I started it was a minimum wage job. Now they get a salary or wage/hour above that and many of the pharmacies are required to pay any costs associated with them keeping their license up to date. The machine is doing all the work of a pharmacy technician and a pharmacy cashier.

I agree, this is a silly way to reduce business overhead.

Raven/Missy said...

woops...forgot to include that the pharmacists are also behind the counter, its not just techs. That's what I get for typing too fast.