Why Automated Pharmacies Will Never Replace Pharmacists

by Tera Tuten on June 4, 2013

automated-pharmacies-never-replace-pharmacists-soliantWould you want a robot dispensing drugs for you and your patients? Odds are, that’s long since been the case, to one extent or another:

Robotics have been used to help dispense medication in some pharmacies since the 1990s and robots for delivering medication have been used in hospitals for a decade.

And even before that, machines have been used for decades to count pills for dispensing – Such technology is now the standard in more than 30,000 pharmacies worldwide.

But will technology ever replace pharmacists completely?

Not a chance. Here’re a few of our thoughts on why:

Most of a pharmacist’s job can’t be done by a computer

While pharmacists and their staff dispense medication, they are primarily trained as experts on pharmaceuticals, their effect, side-effects, and interactions with other drugs.

Much like the doctor delivering a baby who’s only in the delivery room for a tiny fraction of the time (if at all, assuming there are no complications), you’ll be glad to have access to a pharmacist the second something goes wrong with your meds.

Pharmacists are a human insurance policy against any and all things about the prescription you’re taking that you might need fact-based subjective advice on.

In many cases in the U.S. and Canada, a pharmacist is available (and a very handy alternative to waiting to see a doctor at a walk-in-clinic or your family physician by appointment) for medical advice about minor ailments like coughs, colds, sores, blood pressure, weight loss issues, contraception, quitting smoking, and general aches & pains who may even be able to write prescriptions for some things related to these.

Humans for managing and advising people on medication and medication interactions will be needed more than ever

While automated medication dispensing systems for hospital pharmacies have been heralded as lifesavers for reducing drug errors and improving productivity, the role of pharmacists is shifting more and more away from simple pill-dispensing.

The percentage of Americans who do more than just “get their prescription” from their pharmacist is set to skyrocket, as the health of the average American continues to decline, and automation for certain medication-dispensing tasks are taken over by technology.

Also, pharmacists are (and have been for many years) available to help patients monitor progress on medication and help maximise results by making lifestyle observations and analysis (in conjunction with family doctors, nurse practitioners and/or specialists.)

Again, as the population continues to ail, the availability of pharmacists in this roll will soon begin to outpace the advantages of replacing them outright with a pill-dispensing machine.

Robots can’t anticipate the imperfect landscape (figuratively and literally) of the average hospital or clinic

Filling prescriptions isn’t the only job for pharmacy robots. At the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, pharmaceutical robots (TUGs) travel the hallways via laser “whiskers” and even use radio signals to summon and direct elevators to get from floor-to-floor. This allows such wheeled robots to deliver medication to authorized personnel, who confirm their identity to the robot via fingerprint reader.

Pretty cool…But here’s the problem: Robots can’t interact with the diverse environments in clinics and hospitals with the reliability of humans. A simple example…TUGs can’t step up an inch or two at random when leaving an elevator in an older building that hasn’t stopped perfectly level with a given floor – something that happens way more than you’d think.

“An older infrastructure is something you don’t usually consider, but you should,” UMMC doctor Marc Summerfield, told healthleadersmedia.com last year. “You’re introducing the most modern piece of moving machinery and it expects its environment to be pristine. If your hospital is older, the floors aren’t perfect and the elevators aren’t always precise. It can be a problem you’ll have to overcome.”


Interested in a career in pharmacy? See Soliant Pharmacy jobs here.


{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

anonymous 10.30.13 at 8:37 pm

experts on pharmaceuticals, their effect, side-effects, and interactions with other drugs.
it would be much easier for a robot to think about all the possible interactions between a combination of medication than it is for a human.

anon 04.30.14 at 6:40 am

This is the most asinine article I have ever read. Retail pharmacists provide little to no value other than a liability sink. They are glorified techs, they don’t prescribe or create drugs, and their opinion is generally irrelevant. They need to be paid much less, 40k/yr max

james 08.10.14 at 8:11 pm

Nice wishful thinking this article is. But robotics continue to be developed. Any advantagesbyou erroneously think you have currently are fast fading. Better get those pharma school student loans paid off quick while you have an income.

B 10.23.14 at 3:06 pm

I can’t agree with you more James.

none of your buisness 01.09.15 at 12:12 pm

I agree, there need to be people to explain to people what the medication does. Sometime people can’t understand the explanation a computer gives.

Greg 01.11.15 at 9:52 pm

Understanding how every drug ever interacts with every other drug ever is beyond human knowability. Say for example a pharmacist has 50 years of experience. He writes a book then all the pharmacists have to read that book then critique it then submit it to all the other pharacists so that they understand every single possible aspect of every drug interaction ever. It’s simply obsurd to ask all pharmacits to do this, but pharmacy robots can upload everything they learn to a collective intellegence and if you have 50 robots all uploading everything they learn to a collective for one year, then all 50 of those robots now have 50 years of experience each. In one year. They don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be 1% better than us, because at a hundredth the cost, and with fewer mistakes, they get the job hands down. The items you listed as obsicles are merely problems we are having now. Technology grows at an exponential rate. And if you think a human can’t design something that smart, keep in mind that siri was designed by a super computer. Designing computers that learn and build smarter programs and computers is what I do. Pharmacists will be some of the first proffessionals to go.

Kevin 03.22.15 at 12:14 am

I agree that computers are and will be much more knowledgeable and effective than pharmacist. Even now pharmacist rely on computers to flag potential drug interactions, alleriges, and even optimal treatment options. They also can use programs to calculate dosages based on patient weight, clearance…etc. However I do not think that pharmacist will be completly replaced. At least not any time soon. No doubt technology will become so advanced that someday it will replace everything. The reason that this author gives are quite silly. Yes modern robots would have a difficult time navigating but they will eventually be incredibly manuverable in a short period of time. Technology roughly doubles every year. So the robots in 5 years will be roughly 32 times smarter than the present models if robotics follows a similar pattern. Since technology progresses exponentially and not linearly our minds tend to significantly underestimate it’s future. Look at it this way. Once computers surpass our brains, the rate of technology advancement will be startling. At that point we will see this exponential rate more clearly. What computers will be able to do within a year after this will amaze everyone then it will amaze every month, day, until something occurs that we can’t possibly understand now. We may not understand then. It could be an amazing outcome. It will be astonishing but it could be just as bad as good. My point is that robots will essentially do everything for us. Some believe that we will merge with technology which is quite possible. Others believe it will be our end. Either way, robots will be in our home soon. I don’t know what humans will do when robots do everything for us. Also, anon, pharmacist are more than glorified pharmacy technicians. Most of the younger pharmacist went to school for 8 years. They have skills and knowledge that are underused in the U.S. Retail pharmacist do more than simply look at a prescription then fill it. They look for possible drug interactions and review for compliance. They may also make recommendations on treatment. It will be difficult, initially, for robots to process objective information. A robot will have a difficult time noticing a patients appearance or demeanor. Pharmacist are actually treatment specialist. Excluding some specialist, a recent pharmacy graduate has more knowledge on treatment of certain diseases than most Doctors and P.A.’s. My point is that pharmacist are more than glorified technicians. Much like doctors are more than glorified witch doctors.

fds 05.24.15 at 2:26 pm

Don’t go to pharmacy school. It is a business that profits university administrators and the professors/deans, who no longer have to work in a dying, very intense repetitive field. They will lie to you about the great clinical parts of pharmacy developing. For a hoot, ask them what they are and mention how it is already being filled by nurses or it can’t be billed by (drunk) daddy CVS. They don’t care about you, just your loan dollars, and for their career, the GPA stats of matriculants.

Bdbdbd 07.07.15 at 5:55 am

So what happens when John Smith’s insurance deductible is reset in the middle of the year and he has no clue why his copay for his medication went from $10 to $75 ? Or what if someone who is abusing drugs keeps wanting to get their scripts filled early? Is the robot going to look into the situation or just keep filling it for them? We put a man on the moon in 1969, if they wanted to completely replace pharmacists with robots they would have done it by now. It will never happen, people don’t want to get explainations from a robot, they want to be able to talk to someone.

Kyle 10.12.15 at 7:29 pm


I disagree with this article. By 2030, the average computer will have the intelligence of a human. By 2060, the average computer will be infinitely more capable to process data than a human can ever expect to do today in its current form. And yes, they will be more able to predict trends and future scenarios than a human.

The Pharmacist 01.04.16 at 2:53 pm

If pharmacists can be replaced with robots, so can doctors and everybody else. Heck, I have an app that is able to give a rough estimate of what could be wrong with me based on a list of symptoms. Even surgeons are being replaced by robots. I believe that diagnosticians are very pissed off about the idea that pharmcists are attempting to gain grounds as providers or clinicians. If anything robots will end up screwing everyone’s jobs, not just the jobs of pharmacists.

Maud 04.27.16 at 1:04 pm

What libatering knowledge. Give me liberty or give me death.

Fred Harrington 06.15.16 at 4:07 am

With the rate that Artificial Intelligence I and Machine learning is evolving, I feel that most things will be automated. It is a matter of punching in all the options.

With that said, I don’t know if EQ is possible for a robot…

Andrew 08.11.16 at 8:17 pm

This is a dumb article. It’s like a horse and buggy driver at the turn of the century saying “we won’t be replaced; who will open the door of the carriage and clean up the horse poop?!” Please. You are an unnecessary cost to us consumers. Get lost and good riddance.


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