First pill robot in Mississippi revolutionizes pharmacy

By Sylvia Hall - bio | email

PASCAGOULA, MS (WLOX) - Steve Hopper spends a lot of time sorting pills in the Singing River Hospital Pharmacy. As a staff pharmacist, he makes accuracy a priority, but there's always room for human error. The hospital's newest purchase, a pill picking robot, could eliminate that chance completely.

"We're doing everything we can to reduce human error before we had robots, but this is taking it to another level that humans cannot do," Hopper said.

Planning for the project started three years ago, but it's finally coming to fruition. The machine goes live this Tuesday.

"We did it thinking, 'What's best for our patients? What's the newest technology? How can we help them,'" explained Madeline Collazo, Director of Pharmacy for Singing River Health System.

The machine itself takes up almost an entire room. Inside the windows that make up the robot's outer wall, you can see a wealth of activity. The machine's robotic arms move so quickly, it's hard to keep up. It may be speedy, but hospital officials say they're amazed by its accuracy.

"You wouldn't believe how much medicine that I've poured through this thing over the last couple of days," said Pharmacy IT Coordinator Allen Lane. "We have had no errors so far."

Singing River Hospital is one of only 12 hospitals in the United States to have a pill picking robot, which is manufactured by Swisslog. It's the first one in Mississippi. Pharmacists hope the new investment will take some of the stress out of filling their 4,600 prescriptions.

"Our swisslog robot can take the container, and it will start prepacking the meds for us," said Lane, placing a container full of pills into a small opening on the side of the machine.

From there, the meds were sorted one by one, packaged, fitted with a bar code and stored on racks in a large transparent case. They stayed there until a large robotic arm picked them off their racks and placed them on a ring. Each ring holds 24 hours worth of medicine for one patient. The robotic arm moved the rings to a separate container, where they were double checked, then delivered to the pharmacist.

"[The robot] allows the pharmacist to get more into clinical roles. We'll be out on the floor working with doctors and patients more."

That's a welcome change for pharmacists like Hopper.

"This is completely revolutionizing the way I was taught in pharmacy," Hopper said.  "And now this is the next generation of what we're going to have to do in the future."

Ocean Springs Hospital is set to get a Swisslog robot later this summer.  The total pricetag for these two machines is $3,000,000.

©2009 WLOX. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.