A hospital in Singapore is now using robotics to bring down pharmacy waiting times while easing loads on pharmacists by automating 80% of medication dispensing.

IBTimes UK got to see the Outpatient Pharmacy Automation System (OPAS) in person running at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Designed by the Singapore government's healthcare technology agency Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS), the system uses a mixture of robots working in tandem to prepare medication for each patient in just seven minutes.

The extensive system uses the Rowa Vmax, an artificially intelligent system in a large mainframe-sized black box from Germany that uses small robots to record, store and pick medication from thousands of drawers in a fraction of the time that it would take a human.

Once an order for medication is received from a doctor in the treatment room, the Rowa Vmax gets to work selecting medication, whether it's a box or a blister pack by checking its barcode. It can pick one box every 12 seconds and the machine is able to hold 30,000 boxes of medication at a time, which is enough stock for three days of dispensing.

If the dose requires loose pills, then another robot from the US known as the Parata Max automatically counts, sorts and caps the tablets needed in another machine.

When the order is ready, the medication boxes and packs are sent down a slide and along a barcode-enabled conveyor belt to the pharmacists, who check the order is correct by scanning the pack's barcode using RFID and then printing out the label with the patient's name and dosing information.

The pharmacist then places the medications into a white basket and sends it down another conveyor belt to an ABB robot arm, which picks the basket up and places it onto a shelf where the receptionist at the pharmacy collection counter can pick it up and hand it to the waiting patient. This is the world's first example of the ABB robot arm – originally designed to assemble cars – being used in healthcare.

Using robots to prevent increased waiting times

Of course, 20% of the picking of medication still has to be done by pharmacists, because some drugs have special handling processes, but it's still a far cry from the way things were done before. The idea is for pharmacists to spend more time seeing patients, instead of racing around trying to pick, pack and label medications.

The OPAS robotics system has so far been deployed in Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and two other healthcare institutions in Singapore to reduce waiting times at outpatient pharmacies by up to 50%.

TTSH says it has achieved manpower savings of 19 full-time employees, but no jobs have been lost. Instead, the employees have been redeployed to higher-value work, and everyone who previously worked in the pharmacy has gone up by a rank in seniority, with the employees on the bottom rung put in charge of the robots.

"The pharmacy at Tan Tock Seng sees 1,400 people a day at peak times and patient loads keep going up 10% annually no matter what we do. With limited space and limited pharmacists, patient waiting times were set to go up from 30 minutes to two hours – the system was on the verge of collapse unless we automated it," Mark Winn, the director of ancillary care at IHiS told IBTimes UK.

"By implementing OPAS, we're able to save future manpower costs and reduce patient waiting times."