Pharmacy Automation


Pharmacy automation is the automation of tasks performed in pharmacy:

measuring and mixing powders and liquids for compounding; tracking and updating customer information in databases (e.g. personally identifiable information, medical history, drug interaction risk detection); inventory management; and dispensing of medication.

Dispensing medications in a community pharmacy before the 1970s was a time-consuming operation. The pharmacist dispensed most prescriptions that were in tablet or capsule form with a simple tray and spatula. Many new medications were being developed by pharmaceutical manufacturers at an ever-increasing pace, and the prices of those medications were rising steeply. A typical community pharmacist was working longer hours and often forced to hire additional staff to handle increased workloads. This extra workload did not allow the time to focus on safety issues. This new factor led to the concept of using a machine to count medications.

The original electronic portable digital tablet counting technology was invented in Manchester, England between 1967 and 1970 by the brothers John and Frank Kirby. In 1967, the Kirbys invented a portable digital tablet counter and formed a limited company with Lester to market it. In 1970, their invention was patented and put into production in Oldham, England. The tablet counter aided the pharmacy industry with time-consuming manual counting of drug prescriptions. In 1975, the technology was exported to America. Between 1982 to 1983, two separate development facilities were created, one in America, overseen by Rodney Lester; and another in England, overseen by the Kirby brothers. In 1987, Frank Kirby died.

The new counting technology replaced manual methods in many other industries as well, such as vitamin and diet supplement manufacturing. Technicians needed a small, affordable device to count and bottle medications. In England and America, the 1980s and 1990s saw new the development of high-speed machines for counting and bottle filling, such as the KLX. Like their pharmacy-based counterparts, these industrial units were designed to be fast and simple to operate, yet remain small and cost effective.

In America, in the late 1990s/early 2000s a new type of tablet counter appeared. The KL15e was simple, small, inexpensive, and offered outstanding levels of counting accuracy. At the turn of the millennium technical advances saw the design of a new breed of counters with a verification system: an onboard computer, displaying photo images of medications to assist the pharmacist or pharmacy technician. In addition, a database for storing all prescriptions that were counted on the device.

During the 1990s through 2012, numerous new pharmacy automation products came to market. This timeframe saw the introduction of new counting technologies, robotics, workflow management software, and interactive voice recognition systems for retail, outpatient, government, and closed-door pharmacies (mail order and central fill).

In America, in 2009, counters were designed that included the ability to dispense hands-free (i.e. directly to the patient). This allowed pharmacies to automate their most commonly dispensed medications via calibrated cassettes. Thirty of a pharmacy’s common medications would now be dispensed automatically. Another new model doubled that throughput and automated a pharmacy’s 60 most common medications via an enclosed robotic mechanism. Robotics had been employed in pharmacies since the mid-1990s, but machines such as the KL60 were the first to fully dispense and label filled patient vials in a comparatively tiny space (about nine square feet of floor space). These newer technologies allowed pharmacy staff to confidently dispense hundreds of prescriptions per day and still be able manage the many functions of a busy community pharmacy.

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