In the Future, Will Pharmacies Be Automated? Estonia Might Have an Answer

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Will popular pharmacies like Apotheka become automated?

Little digital eyes watch over us all the time today. Security cameras, traffic cameras, sensors that open doors for us, even those Google Earth cameras that display our neighborhood streets to the world. It’s an Orwellian fantasy come true, but those digital eyes are going to be a key component of the digital world that is yet to fully arrive.

Despite the dystopian images they may conjure, electronic voyeurs can be liberating devices. If the flow of information moves in both directions–like if those cameras become video conferencing portals–we can create a network of human-to-human, face-to-face communication.

That, in turn, could place in any one person at dozens of locations simultaneously. If that one person happens to possess important skills and training, then those attributes also become available at dozens of locations at once. That’s why the creation of a truly digital nation involves considering the question, “Will pharmacies become automated?”

Remote Pharmacists for Rural Pharmacies

With a series of little digital eyes watching over the prescription counters and dispensaries, a single pharmacist could take responsibility for the medication of customers at several different pharmacies at once. They could see who is at the counter, what their prescription contains and how it looks, oversee an assistant packaging the product, and watch the final exchange take place.

If the mounted camera, or series of cameras, is able to use video conferencing for two-way communication, the remote pharmacist could interact with customers and staff, as well. They could pose questions, give advice, and safeguard all transactions. Without the need for expert supervision on-site, trainee or lesser-qualified staff could operate pharmacies in rural or remote areas that don’t have the customer base to justify sending in a fully-fledged pharmacist.

To make this all work, however, you must live in a country that will permit and support this kind of remote operation. Luckily for its citizens, the government of Estonia in northern Europe is willing to do exactly that.

The Digital Nation of Estonia

Estonia’s administrative courts recently approved the use of video links in pharmacy consultations under the kind of scheme detailed above. Before the approval, the Apotheka chain of pharmacies had already begun distributing medicines in this way despite Estonian laws that demanded a certified pharmacist be on-site anywhere drugs were dispensed. After having their day in court and emerging successful, Apotheka is now free to have clerks with no formal training run a pharmacy, as long as there’s an expert available via video call at all times.

The concept will seem strange to most of us, but it is in keeping with Estonia’s recent push toward digitizing its government and people. The E-Estonia project digitally links all government agencies, including justice and policing, healthcare, education, taxation, and banking, with the everyday lives of its people. The result is a democracy where people can do anything from vote to contest a parking ticket from the convenience of their computer or smartphone.

When you add video conferencing to that digital network of domestic hubs, you add the human elements of responsibility, expertise, and the ability to cope with the unusual to this otherwise computerized state.

That’s a better digital nation. One that’s watched over and infused with real people.

So, Will Pharmacies Be Automated?

There’s already a fully-automated pharmacy currently being trialed in South Africa–at least a basic model. It’s an ATM-style dispensary that lets AIDs sufferers pick up their medication without having to visit a pharmacy or confine themselves to traditional business hours. The 24-hour self-service machines even come with a video conferencing link to trained pharmacists.

What that model lacks, and the Estonian one possesses, is a range of offerings and services. The practical logistics of stocking an ATM with all the products a customer might seek from a pharmacy make it impossible for the South African model to be anything but a targeted delivery system. What both solutions do, however, is make the expertise of healthcare professionals easily available. You still have to get the products out to where people need them–but, aside from an internet connection and some local checkout people, that’s all you need to supply.

Maximizing the amount of area and population any healthcare provider can service is a potential solution to the looming doctor shortage many developed countries are about to experience. If one expert can supervise the work of many generalists we can create a vast network of video conferencing-driven medical solutions.

Estonia’s embrace of digital nationhood and its willingness to trust video conferencing to provide medical oversight is a step toward a more efficient society. It’s a digital nation that still values human touch and control (and privacy–while all Estonian medical, police, and other records are available to whoever needs them, every Estonian is fully in control of their own records and who can access them).

So, will future pharmacies be automated? We don’t think so. Instead, they’ll be networks of digital outposts supervised by a single expert, watching from a little digital eye in the sky.

Image Source: Flickr CC User Sunny Lapin

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