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Benjamin D'Montigny: Man versus machine

"What are we as dispensers, technicians and pharmacists needed for any more?"

Automation is rendering roles in the pharmacy team obsolete, says Benjamin D’Montigny

It is sometimes enlightenening - and sometimes frightening - to look at how far the world of pharmacy has come. The Sumerians wrote the earliest surviving prescriptions nearly 5,000 years ago and, needless to say, we have progressed a tad since then.


Skip forwards a few thousand years, and things are done slightly differently. No longer are we brewing potions and elixirs, favouring the more prudent methods of aseptic production and automated manufacturing. What was theory and belief is now scientifically tested evidence. And, as we progress and develop in pharmacy, so does the technology we use.


Now we stand at a new frontier, one where the need for human hands is lessening and where robotics and logistical optimisation could easily supersede the standard processes that are used in pharmacy currently.


This begs the question: what are we dispensers, technicians and pharmacists needed for any more?


As a dispenser, there’s no way I could compete with the speed, efficiency or stamina of a dispensing robot that doesn’t make mistakes, never slows down or gets tired. At 150 prescriptions an hour - the stated capacity of one small robotic system - I’d have trouble competing with a machine.


In east Kent, William Harvey Hospital has an out-of-hours dispensing service that can be operated remotely to dispense medication for a patient and send it to a safebox elsewhere in the hospital without the pharmacist on duty even leaving the comfort of their own home.


Suddenly, the bread and butter of a pharmacist’s day – checking – is made redundant. Dispensers lose their namesake profession. Technicians move to robotic troubleshooting and maintenance rather than actual work with medication.


When you look at it this way, you can start to see the appeal of internet pharmacies and hub pharmacy structures that can take on this workload and do it to a higher, more cost-effective standard. Yes, there’s an initial upfront cost - but when you consider the cost of hiring the equivalent in staff power, it is extremely reasonable not to mention the whole myriad of other savings.


Dispensaries could easily become a phone or internet service into which humans have the minimal amount of input, reducing the chance of errors to next to nothing and at a speed that is far superior to that of a team of trained, experienced dispensers. The prospect could be something similar to Amazon with next day delivery and free shipping.


Maybe it’s time to consider retraining?

Benjamin D’Montigny is a locum dispenser working in the south of England


More from Benjamin D'Montigny


Where do you think the future of the profession lies?

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London Locum, Locum pharmacist

No, Pharmacists own stupidity has made them redundant.

Anonymous Anonymous, Information Technology

You're right dispensing and checking are redundant skills that will soon be overtaken by the accuracy and efficiency of robots... However, as pharmacists what we have is discretion and the ability to utilise complex evidence in order to make medicine selection both OTC (and when required by GP's) and POM.

Leon The Apothecary, Student

Indeed, and I perhaps feel in the case of the pharmacist a question of quantity and oversupply of the profession's skilled workforce. Keeping in theme with the article, those skills that pharmacists have worked hard to obtain could be applied remotely for the most part and use lesser costing professionals such as skilled MCAs to advise on medicines and refer when it is beyond their scope using the wide phantasmagoria of communications available. Legality prevents that currently, but one could argue that is but an easy obstacle if that's the way the wind is encouraged to blow, as it were.

Anonymous Anonymous, Information Technology

Oversupply brought in surreptitiously by a government that wishes to undermine the skills of pharmacists whilst simultaneously having their cake and eating it i.e. all of the "see your pharmacist" adverts without actually paying us fairly for the savings that we provide to the NHS. I think far too much emphasis has been put on the less taxing elements of being a pharmacist (e.g. dispensing, checking), which can be completed by just about anybody with a double-digit IQ (that can hopefully now be offloaded onto dispensers/techs) and not enough on the consultations, genuine MURs, OTC advice and signposting.

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