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Xrayser: What can a pharmacist do that a robot can't?

"With iPhone X-style face recognition, dispensing has 100% accuracy – with 0% human interaction"

Following news that some NHS 111 calls will now be answered by artificial intelligence, Xrayser asks if robots will soon replace pharmacists

There’s much talk over the past year about robots taking over everyone’s role, with auditors PricewaterhouseCoopers suggesting more than 10 million UK jobs could be replaced. As a pharmacist, should I be worried?

We already receive interaction alerts for the electronic prescription service (EPS), and linking the summary care record would allow a fully computerised ‘clinical check’. Optical character recognition of robot-dispensed-and-labelled stock, followed by accurate weighing of the filled prescription bag, takes care of the ‘final check’. All you need is iPhone X-style face recognition to confirm patient identity, and the dispensing service has 100% accuracy – with 0% human interaction.

Downloaded health information and automated measuring of weight, blood pressure and cholesterol takes care of healthy living services, and the news of NHS 111 calls answered by artificial intelligence shows that robotic self-care and over-the-counter (OTC) prescribing won’t be far behind.

But before we all sign on at the job centre and Walgreens Boots Alliance’s share price sky-rockets, let’s stop to realise that no matter how accurately drugs are dispensed, or how easily patient information is downloaded, it won’t make patients more able or willing to take their alendronic acid – but we can.

I recently asked how a patient was getting on with his atenolol, and despite the reply, “Yes, OK”, his manner suggested otherwise. So, with perception that can’t be programmed, I asked again and he admitted experiencing erectile dysfunction.

The clinical check also involves insight, such as noticing that the high-dose morphine prescription is for an opiate-naïve patient, or whether the new mum prescribed miconazole gel has been told to use it off-licence on her two-week-old baby.

As well as such intuition, we can perform a diverse range of tasks, such as consulting on a new medicine, advising treatment for a superficial burn, helping someone to quit smoking, mending the till, tracking down an EPS token from another pharmacy, and encouraging a new counter assistant to take their final medicines test. No matter how advanced the artificial intelligence, it lacks transferability of experience, so a computer program for a driverless car couldn’t fly an aeroplane, or build a car, or teach driving.

All advances in pharmacy technology need to be seen as a tool, at the heart of which is not artificial intelligence, but a pharmacist. It doesn’t matter whether we have the final check or whether a technician oversees sales of OTC medicines, we have to be present in a pharmacy because of our ability to exercise judgement in diverse and unpredictable situations. A robot can’t do this. Sure, it can label boxes accurately, yet for all its artificial intelligence it has no common sense.

But don’t get me wrong – I am no luddite. There are numerous patients for whom I’d be delighted to let a robot replace my human interaction with their pointless queries, and many more that deserve to hear the words: “Computer says no.”

5 Comments

Stephen Eggleston, Community pharmacist

When the idea of increased machanisation and the use of AI & robots are put forward, it always makes me think:

1. Terrific - but what will all the redundant people do?

2. What happens when the lights go out?

mohamed nanji, Community pharmacist

we are already the robots 

Yo Palumeri, Community pharmacist

demographics give these scenarios about 15 years before they are accepted 

iphone generation really don't value personal interaction remember trusted source Facebook

Mohammed Patel, Community pharmacist

"Robot" technology is still very nascent and and, as the news has recently reported, robots cannot even be relied upon to drive cars efficiently as we stand at the moment.

Once robot technology reaches a certain level, it will not only be pharmacists that could be replaced. GPs could also be replaced by robots with diagnosis algorithms and that would save a *lot* more money for the NHS.

Surgeons could be replaced with much faster and more accurate robots. Again, a massive, massive saving for the NHS, albeit at the expense of a very large upfront investment.

But then, if that happens, we could also replace the following with robots:

-Checkout operators (some have already been replaced with self-service)

-Petrol station attendants (some have already been replaced with pay at pump)

-Argos employees

-Waiters and bartenders

-Taxi drivers

-Train drivers

-Medical company reps

-Car park attendants

-Road sweepers

-Hotel employees

-Most factory jobs

-Pilots

-Ship's captains

-Many financial sector jobs

-Most call-centre jobs

And the list is truly endless. How many jobs genuinely require the human touch? Not many. For those of you who keep up to date with current affairs, it would also seem that prostitutes are being replaced with these so-called "sex-dolls"!

At least, compared to many of the above, pharmacists can do a lot more than a robot. Because so many patients, particularly those of advancing years, enjoy the chance to interact and chat with their local pharmacist, who almost certainly knows them on a first name basis. The personal touch, interacting with someone who you have grown to know over the years and have a joke with, is something that robots cannot replace.

But we are now in the position where many pharmacies are doing deliveries, which obviously negates any chance of them speaking to the pharmacist about whichever concern they may have. Be that a medical or personal issue. In the healthcare industry at least, mechanising patient-facing roles would be a huge step in the wrong direction, and only serve to further alienate patients who enjoy that little bit of human interaction.

Ilove Pharmacy, Non Pharmacist Branch Manager

All relevant but insignificant when you bring in the words 'profit' and 'money', all above the patient in the list of priorities.

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