‘Robot’ dispenses meds, saves time

Monday, March 31, 2003

WALLACE, N.C. - The old Jetsons television cartoon may not have featured a drug store in its fanciful depictions of life in the future, but if George ever had to pick up some meds, the pharmacist he visited might have looked something like the robot Italo Vanoletti installed in his store here recently.

Distributed by McKesson, the AutoScript III robot at Hi-Mediq pharmacy is a smart mechanical arm that picks pills from any of the hundreds of cells that slide out of a surrounding cabinet. The arm then counts the pills on a counter, labels a container, fills it and caps it.

In an hour, the $280,000 robot can fill about 60 prescriptions. It’s saving Vanoletti the cost of hiring another pharmacist, at least for the time being. But the real benefits of the robot for Vanoletti are less tangible than the cost-savings on his payroll.

While the margin of error in the typical filled prescription (i.e. too many, or too few pills) is about 6-7%, he says the robot doesn’t make errors. And it’s fast. Vanoletti is refining a reputation that turns around a patient’s prescription in four minutes.

The idea is to provide service service service, and growth will come with it as people realize how interested you are in giving them good service and attention,” he said. “I want to be prepared.”

Hi-Mediq currently generates about $1.5 million in revenue a year. The company employs 15 and provide mail order medications to about 4,000 diabetics.

Nationwide, robots are a still a relatively rare occurrence in pharmacies. At a trade show in Toronto where he first encountered the AutoScript III last fall, Vanoletti learned that McKesson had placed fewer than 100 of the units in the U.S. and Canada. Most of those pharmacies were mail-order only, but he saw benefits for his relatively young business.

“I didn’t see why the benefits of efficiency and safety couldn’t be put on the floor in front of the patient instead of in a closed door pharmacy,” he said. HME