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updated 3/14/2011 3:45:59 PM ET 2011-03-14T19:45:59

A family of giant robots is now counting and processing medications for patients at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center. These robots that prepare and track medications at the new automated hospital pharmacy — believed by UCSF to be the nation's most comprehensive — should improve patient safety.

Studies have shown that technologies including bar coding and computerized physician entry, as well as changes in hospital processes for medication management, can help reduce errors. Not a single error has occurred in the 350,000 doses of medication prepared during the automated system's recent phase-in over a 140-day period beginning in October 2010.

"The automated pharmacy streamlines medication delivery from prescription to patient," said Lynn Paulsen, director of pharmaceutical services at UCSF Medical Center, in a news release from the university. "It was important to develop a system that is integrated from end to end. Each step in safe, effective medication therapy — from determining the most appropriate drug for an individual patient to administering it — is contingent on the other."

Inside the robo-pharmacy

Housed in a tightly secured, sterile environment, the automated system prepares oral and injectable medicines, including toxic chemotherapy drugs, and can fill IV syringes or bags with the medications.

Once computers at the new pharmacy electronically receive medication orders from UCSF physicians and pharmacists, the robotics pick, package and dispense individual doses of pills.

Machines assemble doses onto a thin plastic ring with a bar code that contains all the medications for a patient for a 12-hour period. This fall, nurses at UCSF Medical Center will begin to use bar code readers to scan the medication at patients' bedsides, verifying it is the correct dosage for the patient.

An automated inventory management system keeps track of all the products, and one refrigerated and two non-refrigerated automated pharmacy warehouses provide storage and retrieval of medications and supplies.

The benefits of automation

By using robots instead of people for traditionally manual tasks, pharmacists and nurses will have more time to work with physicians to determine the best drug therapy for a patient, and to monitor patients for clinical response and adverse drug reactions.

In addition, the new pharmacy offers a rich training ground for pharmacy students in the medication distribution systems of the future. The pharmacy also will enable UCSF to study new ways of medication delivery with the goal of sharing that knowledge with other hospitals across the country.

"Automated medication-dispensing frees pharmacists from the mechanical aspects of the practice," said Mary Anne Koda-Kimble, dean of the UCSF School of Pharmacy. "This technology, with others, will allow pharmacists to use their pharmaceutical care expertise to assure that patients are treated with medicines tailored to their individual needs."

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