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.”