Hospital robots cut hospital pharmacy bill

By Eleanor Bradford
BBC Scotland Health Correspondent


A robotic pharmacy has improved safety and saved money at a new Scottish hospital, according to hospital bosses.

Managers at the Forth Valley Royal hospital in Larbert said a £400,000 automated pharmacy has saved £700,000 off the hospital's drugs bill.

They said the system had freed up staff time to care for patients at the new £300m hospital.

Lead pharmacist Jann Davidson said the three robots had also cut dispensing errors.

She said: "We've been able to reduce our stockholding quite considerably.

"It's also reduced errors at the point of picking and dispensing and our staff are now able to work up beside the patients, checking their medicines as patients come into the hospital."

Drugs being delivered to the hospital are tipped into a giant hopper.

A conveyor belt moves them along to a machine which reads the barcodes.

Three robots then stack them onto shelves, according to a system designed for the robots and known only by them.

"The packs aren't stored in an A-Z way, they're just placed to make the best use of space and the robot understands which packs are used the most and places them accordingly," added Ms Davison.

That might seem ripe for disaster, but Jann assures me there are back-up generators and it would take a catastrophic failure to stop all three robots working.

'Constant whirring'

In the meantime further savings on stock are expected.

Up in the wards, tablet computers have replaced pharmacists prescription pads.

Requests for medicines are instantly sent to the robots, who select and dispatch the drugs.

The project manager for this "e-ward" system is Liam Coughlan.

"If you consider paper, you have to continually pass the piece of paper from one person to another, it's only accessible from one place," he said.

"With a computer system you have the ability to check drugs from remote locations."

A colour-coded screen on every ward tells medical staff exactly what stage each prescription has reached.

"Instead of a nurse having to phone down to the pharmacy, interrupting the pharmacist and taking up the nurse's time, they can simply look at this screen," added Mr Coughlan.

Forth Valley Royal's associate director of nursing Helen Paterson said the paperless system had freed up nursing time.

She said: "As well as writing scripts, nurses were having to physically come down to pharmacy. That time's been saved now."

At first staff were concerned that the constant whirring of the robots and conveyor belts would make the pharmacy too noisy.

In fact it's quieter than most hospital pharmacies where phones are constantly ringing.

There is one problem though, the robots can only handle small square or rectangular boxes.

Staff tell me that pharmaceutical companies are already altering their packaging so that it's suitable for a future where robotic pharmacies are the norm.

The system is being discussed as part of Radio 4's Click On programme, due to be broadcast on Monday at 1630 BST.

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