Filling prescriptions isn't the only job for pharmacy robots. At the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, pharmaceutical robots travel the hallways and even use the elevators all by themselves as they deliver medications to three critical-care hospitals. When they arrive at their destinations, they announce themselves and then allow authorized personnel access to the medications they are delivering.
UMMC, which has 757 licensed beds, began using the TUG robots from Pittsburgh-based Aethon in 2002, first with just one automated medication cart that delivered orders to the hospital's shock trauma unit from the satellite pharmacy, explains Marc Summerfield, RPh, MS, director of pharmacy at UMMC. The medical center now has eight TUG units delivering orders filled by the pharmacy to the three critical-care hospitals within UMMC.
Hospital leaders have been pleased with the success of the system. The robots have reduced by 60% the time it takes between the pharmacy's receipt of a drug order and its delivery to the nursing unit. Delivery to the shock trauma units has been cut from about 45 minutes to about 25 minutes. Previously, pharmacy technicians had to carry the filled orders to the units, which inevitably took longer than a single-focused robot dedicated to its task.
"There was always some variability with people, but the TUGs just go and come back," Summerfield says.
There have been learning experiences along the way. When first adopted, the TUGs used a different pharmacy software that required nurses to take responsibility for drugs when they arrived at the nursing unit. Additionally, controlled substances could not be delivered by the TUGs and still had to be hand-carried to the units. Both of those problems decreased the usefulness of the robots, but those problems were solved when the TUGs were switched to MedEx, a pharmacy-specific software system that provides a record of the chain-of-custody of all drugs, including controlled substances, explains Summerfield.