A new automated drug picking and packing system at Singapore General Hospital’s (SGH) outpatient pharmacies is enhancing safety as pharmacists can now spend more time checking prescriptions, answering patients’ queries, and making sure that patients know how to take their medication correctly.

The system, which makes use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, will also shorten the waiting time for patients who need to get their prescriptions filled.

“The traditional method of picking and packing medicines is manual, labour-intensive and relies on trained manpower. The speed and accuracy of the process depend on the experience of the staff, which is prone to human errors such as the wrong drug or wrong strength,” said Mr Lim Mun Moon, Deputy Director, Pharmacy Department, Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the SingHealth group. Using automation and technology to track the process makes drug dispensing “99.9 per cent accurate”, he said.

Reduced preparation time for medicine prescriptions

Medicines can sometimes be picked, packed or labelled wrongly, said Ms Lee Soo Boon, Deputy Director, Pharmacy Department, SGH. But the near misses have since decreased by about 38 per cent to almost zero, she said.

“These are lapses that happen within the process before the medicine goes out. It usually happens during the packing stage and it could be a case of the wrong drug or wrong strength. Now we have automated the packing process, and the packing system is more accurate, with an LED guide to where the drugs are. This cuts down the ‘wrong drug and wrong strength’ issue.”

Medicines are packed either automatically or manually. The machine is only able to pack drugs that are of a standard size or amount, and cannot cut blister strip packs of 10, for instance, if the prescription calls for just six tablets. A pharmacist or pharmacy technician will need to pack such drugs manually, and an LED-guided system helps them find the correct drugs easily.

When a basket containing a prescription has been filled, whether automatically or manually, it travels on a conveyor belt to where it is picked up by a pharmacist for dispensing at the front counter.

The time taken to prepare a prescription, previously as long as 15 minutes, has now been cut by about five minutes.

Faster service benefits both patients and staff

More counters have also opened to serve patients as some 11 pharmacists have been freed from their previous tasks in the back room, said Mr Lim. The pharmacy serving the Specialist Outpatient Clinics now runs 23 counters, compared to 14 in the past.

“Safety has improved in the back room, and the front-counter pharmacists are less stressed, knowing that the prescriptions have been accurately packed in the back room,” Mr Lim said.

Currently, about 70 per cent of patients get their medicine within 30 minutes. With the new system, SGH is looking to have 95 per cent of patients served within 30 minutes, said Ms Lee.

The design and implementation of this integrated system – which cost $4 million – is a collaborative effort by SGH, Innotech Resources, PSB Technologies, EurekaPlus and Integrated Health Information Systems (iHiS). It is partly funded by the Health Ministry and Spring Singapore.

Ref: S13