Automated pill pusher relieves pharmacy pain

Nov. 1, 2007
A new machine with what looks like a highly complex carousel inside could speed up visits and eliminate mistakes at the pharmacy counter. Much like an

A new machine with what looks like a highly complex carousel inside could speed up visits and eliminate mistakes at the pharmacy counter. Much like an ATM (automated teller machine) dispenses cash, the Parata APM (automated product machine) hands out prepackaged refills to people taking commonly prescribed medicines. The self-serve kiosk lets people pay and go in the time it takes for a normal electronic transaction. By automating prescription pickups, the machine frees up pharmacists so they can spend more time answering questions and helping people.

Back story

Walter Bain was not a workaholic by choice. A 40-year pharmacy veteran from Farmington, Utah, Bain attempted to solve his own problem of late hours by building an automated prescription pickup machine for his bustling, small town pharmacy. After years of development challenges, he landed on a design that became the foundation of today's APM and filed for a patent in 2000.

Bain eventually sold the technology to Distributed Delivery Networks, Amistar Corp., San Marcos, Calif., and the company continued to refine his design. In April, the technology changed hands again when Parata Systems LLC, Durham, N.C., bought the APM design as part of its overall vision to modernize retail pharmacies. Parata also sells semi-automated pill counters, workflow software, and unit-of-dose compliance packaging.

Design dilemmas

For starters, the APM had to be able to juggle hundreds of prescriptions in a small space. Then there was the consumer interface. The design had to be simple, secure, accurate, and private — much like self-service kiosks used for banking and airline travel. Yet another hurdle was creating a machine that passed regulatory scrutiny from state pharmacy boards concerned with drug security and patient privacy — think HIPAA laws.

To address these challenges, a novel internal rotating bin design holds up to 448 prescriptions in a retail-sized footprint. For ease of use, a touchscreen interface walks customers through the pickup process. A phone is available to reach a pharmacist at any time, and an electronic signature pad facilitates credit card payment. To address security concerns, the machine has floor bolts, door locks, an alarm system, plus tilt and shock sensors. As for accuracy, the APM uses a clip with barcode for each prescription, which is scanned by a reader to ensure correct dispensing, while a digital time-stamped photo documents each transaction.

How it works

The guts of the Parata APM include a continuous chain of bins that moves up and down. Pharmacists load “will call” prescriptions into bins from the rear of the machine. All other components serve to move the correct bin to the correct dispensing door for patient pickup. Hubs and sprockets on the machine's sides rotate on horizontal axles, driven by a belt and powered by a reversible electric motor. The sprockets do double duty, also engaging rods on the chain of bins to lift and lower it. Two pairs of guides secured to each side panel form channels that stabilize the chain as it moves within the housing. Sensors at the dispensing station read prescription labels with 100% accuracy.

Design impact

Parata APMs are deployed in pharmacies across the country, from military installations to major retail stores. Units cost $75,000.
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