UAE's high-tech robot dispenses medicines, cuts patient queues

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The region's first robotic pharmacy is now up and running at a brand new hospital in the United Arab Emirate's capital of Abu Dhabi.

Universal Hospital only opened its doors to the public in July but has already spent almost two million dirhams ($500,000) to install a state-of-the-art machine in its on-site pharmacy, promising to cut patient's queues and waiting times.

The German-made Rowa Smart System is a computerized 'pharmacy' with a robotic arm that dispenses medicines in a matter of seconds.

This robotic pharmacy also arranges the 15,000 packets of medicines its storeroom holds according to type and date of manufacture.

Dr Atif Bitar, purchase manager at the hospital, thinks the new 200-bed hospital will set itself apart from others by having the only robotic-assisted pharmacy in the whole region.

“The idea behind bringing the robotic system to the pharmacy was to have something distinctive at Universal Hospital and the hospital's pharmacy and at the same time to have a pharmacy that is linked to the hospital itself so that patients have their medicine ready as soon as they leave the doctor's office,” Dr Atif said.

Gone will be the days of pharmacists deciphering doctor's handwriting before manually trawling through shelves of different medicines for patients who, pharmacist-in-charge, Linda Saadah, says are sick, tired and often desperate to give the long queues a miss and get home.

“It saves a lot having the pharmacy system tied in to the hospital system so the patient arrives at the pharmacy and their medicine is ready and the instructions for use (are printed out) leaving us only with the simple instructions to give which doesn't take more than a minute or two and so it relieves the patient,” Saadah said.

At the moment pharmacists operate the Robot through a computerized screen where they choose the prescribed medicine and the required quality.

The robotic arm then swings its way along the shelves to find the right medicine, picks it up and dispenses it through to one of five output terminals, where the pharmacist can collect the medicine.

Despite the high cost of the machine - which will amount to about AED3.5 million ($1 million) by the time it is fully integrated into the hospital system - Dr Atif says he's confident the investment will pay off in the long-run.

“In terms of money, yes of course it will save us a few pharmacists. Instead of having 6 or 7 for example, we can reduce this number by at least 2 or 3 later on when the machine is linked up to the HIS (hospital information system) so that instead of having all pharmacists we can have some who are technicians instead,” Dr Atif said.

Once the machine is fully integrated with the hospital, patients' prescriptions will be sent to the pharmacy's system directly from the doctor's room meaning medicines and terms of use are automatically dispensed and ready before the patient arrives at the pharmacy.

With a dispensation time of only six seconds, patients will undoubtedly welcome a speedier process to getting better.

It isn't only speed that is the advantage. The machine's precision and automation also eliminates the chances of human error.

Nevertheless the idea, Dr Atif says, is not to get rid of pharmacists entirely but to allow them to focus on their primary duty of explaining to patients the correct way of using their medication.

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