The pharmacy at UCSF Medical Center hands out something like 10,000 doses of medication per day. That's a lot of pills, and generally, it's the job of pharmacy workers to take care of all of the sorting and checking and bottling and double-checking. It's not just labor-intensive, it requires skill, and if you mess something up, you run the risk of killing someone.
With all this in mind, UCSF has invested in a team of robotic pharmacy workers which can handle prescriptions all the way from electronic orders from doctors and nurses to dispensing individual pills, arranged on a handy plastic ring in order of when they should be taken. Here's the whole system in action:
While the robotic system is obviously very efficient, efficiency is only a part of the benefit. It's easier to keep records. There's very little risk of contamination. Staff can now spend more time with patients. And mistakes with medication are few and far between. Or actually, that's an understatement, since the robots have a record of 350,000 successful medication preparations with zero screw-ups. Not bad!
The next step is to integrate the pharmacy robot with robots that can diagnose what's wrong with you and then administer medication, paving the way for robotic hospitals without a human staff. That may not be a good thing, but my guess is that it's probably an inevitability in either case.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.