Featured, Professional Advice / Opinions:

Goodbye pharmacists, hello robots?

By: Katherine Russo, PharmD Candidate c/o 2021

“Treat the whole patient and not the whole in the patient”  – Unknown

From the new temporal scanner thermometers in your local pediatrician’s office, to needle-free diabetes care at home, to medication dispensing boxes in hospitals, the ever-evolving world of technology is no stranger to the healthcare industry. What does this mean for patients, doctors, and pharmacists? Will robots be the future of all healthcare professions?

Defined as, “a reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks”, robots are the future of health care as providers are seemingly being replaced. Not only are robots being introduced for surgery, but one could expect, “a version of IBM’s Watson that can cross-check symptoms with medications with a patient’s history and come up with an array of possible diagnoses ranked by likelihood”.² The switch to robots in place of doctors has some people wishing it would happen sooner while others are more hesitant.

In many aspects, replacing humans with robots will allow for improvement of patient safety. One of the most highly regarded machines is what doctors and pharmacists refer to as Automated Dispensing Cabinets, or ADCs (Figure 1).3 Most commonly found in hospitals, ADCs are “computerized drug storage devices or cabinets that allow medications to be stored and dispensed near the point of care, while controlling and tracking drug distribution”. 4

These machines reduce the pharmacist’s dispensing time as well as decrease administration errors, and “automated dispensing machines eliminate the dispensing of unused “as-needed” (prn) doses, thereby decreasing the potential for administration errors that can arise if more doses than needed are dispensed and available for administration”.5 In addition to its safety benefits, Automated Dispensing Cabinets also making the billing process easier and more accurate. Through computer interface technology, ADCs can be linked with external databases, such as the facility’s billing system, to provide accurate information of medication name and quantity to enhance efficiency of billing patients and insurance companies.6

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that, “employment of pharmacists is projected to grow 3 percent from 2014 to 2024, slower than the average (7%) for all occupations. Increased demand for prescription medications will lead to more demand for pharmaceutical services. However, employment of pharmacists in traditional pharmacies is projected to decline slightly.7 This reduced employment of pharmacists could be attributed to the increase of technology in the pharmacy field.

The pharmacist is not only responsible for the medication behind the counter but also the medication out on the floor. Robotic machines may make filling prescriptions safer and more efficient, but it does not cover a majority of what a pharmacist does. Pharmacist responsibilities include patient counseling, providing OTC medication information, serving as a triage in the community to refer patients to other health services as needed, immunization provider, chronic disease management services (i.e. blood pressure) and many other responsibilities.

So pharmacists, if you’re nervous, you shouldn’t be. Geoff Colvin, author of both Talent is Overrated and Humans Are Underrated, states, “If your job does not have human behavior in its function, then you will be quite surprised to hear that you are replaceable by a machine”.8

Pharmacists may not have physical storage capacities comparable to these robots, but they have qualities that robots will never have, “Computers and robots  cannot show empathy, compassion, sympathy or collaboration”.8 As a current pharmacy student, direct patient care is a valuable skill instilled in us from day one. Part of being a pharmacist is interpersonal communication with patients. If pharmacists are replaced by machines, patients are losing a key part of what they are paying for and also what is expected of pharmacists. Pharmacy Times contributor Beth Lofgren, PharmD. points out that, “A computer is simply unable to replace human interaction. Pharmacists bring more value to the health care table than functions that can be performed by robots”.8 If more pharmacists are let go there will not be enough left for patients to receive counseling on medications or to simply ask questions, leaving America uneducated about the medications they take. With robots replacing doctors and their diagnoses, patients will want to speak to a medical professional about their course of treatment, making pharmacists the most accessible healthcare provider. As pharmacists are being turned to more    often, it is now a crucial time for pharmacist provider status to be established.

While some pharmacists are still fearful about what these new technologies hold for human workers, pharmacists need not fear. Robots may be able to dispense medications or pull up an answer faster than the human brain, but they can’t take away our emotions and personal qualities. For centers, medicine has involved patient-doctor and patient-pharmacist communication, so why change that? Like the old saying says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.


  1. Stanford University P. Robotics: A Brief History. Stanford.edu. http://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/courses/soco/projects/1998-99/robotics/history.html. Published 1998. Last Updated 1999.
  2. Klein E. How robots will replace doctors. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/how-robots-will-replace-doctors/2011/08/25/gIQASA17AL_blog.html?utm_term=.3b0d936f8e79. Published 10/01/2011.
  3. Willach Pharmacy. Pharmacy automated dispensing cabinet. Medical Expo. http://www.medicalexpo.com/prod/willach/product-100942-709993.html.
  4. Grissinger M. Safeguards for using and designing automated dispensing cabinets. P T. 2012;37(9):490-530. PMID: 23066340.
  5. Fung E. Do automated dispensing machines improve patient safety? Can J Hosp Pharm. 2009;62(6):516-9. PMID: 22478942.
  6. Grissinger M. Safeguards for using and designing automated dispensing cabinets. US National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3462599/. Published 09/2012.
  7. Bureau of Labor Statistics U. Pharmacists. Occupational Outlook Handbook. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/pharmacists.htm. Published 12/17/2015. Last Updated 05/10/2016.
  8. Lofgren B. Could a robot do a pharmacist’s job?. Pharmacy Times. http://www.pharmacytimes.com/contributor/beth-lofgren-pharmd-bcps/2015/09/could-a-robot-do-a-pharmacists-job. Published 09/16/2015.
Published by Rho Chi Post
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