Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sebaks! And robots! And hospitals! Oh my!

Rick Sebak. A year an a half ago I had never heard of him. Now, I arguably see him more than I see my mother...granted it's via the television. Well, a few months ago I was watching one of his many shows about Pittsburgh on WQED, and Mr. Sebak did a small feature on a locally-founded company and their innovative product. That company was Automated Health Systems (which has since been purchased by McKesson) and their product was an automated pharmacy, called ROBOT-Rx.

The product page for the ROBOT-Rx proudly claims the system, "automates medication storage, selection, return, restock, and crediting functions for 90 percent or more of a hospital's daily medication volume." I won't restate the specifics of how the system accomplishes this since they are listed on the product page as well as in McKesson case studies and data the company has gathered since the first unit was installed in 1992 in St. Clair Hospital. Rather, I want to point out that by allowing pharmacists and pharmacy technicians to focus on other, less repetitive tasks, the ROBOT-Rx seems to fall in line with the applied lean manufacturing concepts put forth in the "Factory Efficiency Comes to the Hospital" article included in our readings for this week. Although the change introduced by automation is obviously more of a wholesale approach than the nuanced process changes that were the focus of the article.

While the cost savings from labor efficiencies created by ROBOT-Rx are obvious (this hospital reached break-even after one year of use), the system creates other benefits for hospitals that use it. Similar to Starbuck's stance on introducing lean manufacturing concepts in their stores to increase time employees have to interact with customers, Bob Blanchard, Director of Pharmacy for Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland, WA, said the ROBOT-Rx allows the hospital to "use people for more critical tasks." The system also helps hospitals better manage their pharmaceutical inventories. It provides hospitals with real-time data for their inventories and allows them to carry smaller amounts of stock than they would otherwise require.

So do you think the ROBOT-Rx is a good idea or are skeptical of automation and lean manufacturing techniques in a hospital environment, as some critics in the "Factory Efficiency Comes to the Hospital" were? And do you see this as a better, or more humane (as Mark might assert with his post below), way of dealing with the need for a process to be repetitive and highly specified in order to ensure reliability and efficiency?

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