Robots revolutionize drug dispensing at Shanghai Seventh People’s Hospital

Robots revolutionize drug dispensing at Shanghai Seventh People’s Hospital

By automating a busy pharmacy department, the hospital has been able to develop a cost-effective method to deliver life-saving drugs, increase drug safety and create a more rewarding environment for its human workers.

The challenge:
The hospital needed a solution to simplify work at the pharmacy while also enhancing the safety of the drug dispensing process at its inpatient department

The solution:
A robot pharmacy automation system featuring a Robot Mini Load (RML) synchronized with a 3D bin picking automation system to store, retrieve, pick up and sort medicines according to prescriptions. Unlike humans, who have the potential to make errors, the automatic system is more accurate, thereby creating a better and safer drug dispensing method.

The application:
An RML and bin picking intralogistics operation to pick and place medicines. Complementary capabilities include 3D vision system and machine learning to help the robot improve its performance over time.

As one of the busiest parts of a hospital, the pharmacy has, over the years, relied on technology to streamline its operations. From electronic tablet counters to completely computerized stocking and labeling solutions, technology has had a transformative impact on pharmacies across the world. Still, factors weighing on the efficiency of drug dispensing are increasing every day. Rising labor costs and shortages, a growing geriatric population and the urgent need to reduce medical errors, all call for more innovation and flexibility in the healthcare industry.

And that is what the Shanghai Seventh People’s Hospital set out to do. In 2019, the hospital - which offers comprehensive medical care using traditional Chinese and Western medicine - collaborated with ABB to research the use of robots and automation systems in hospitals, labs and pharmacies. Less than a year later, the hospital has two robots that dispense drugs more accurately than their human counterparts.

Automation at the pharmacy  

In a small glass room at the hospital’s inpatient department, two ABB robots work together to remove medicines from circular shelves and prepare them for distribution to patients. The automatic drug dispensing function is achieved by the synchronized movements of an RML system, using an ABB IRB 2600 robot and a bin picking system with an IRB 1200 small robot that is designed to work fast in a room that is just over 16 sq.m in size.

The RML takes around 10 seconds to locate and place the medicine box and can process up to 360 kits every hour, while the second robot system can pick up about 720 medicines in the same time. Both robots can work throughout the day and night, without making a single mistake or taking breaks.

“This is our new set of “smart” weapons to serve all of our inpatients,” said Shi Rongrong, the deputy director of the hospital’s pharmacy department. 

Medical staff feed drug prescriptions into an information system that is connected to the automatic robotic pharmacy setup. Once the prescription flashes on a screen, the IRB 2600 quickly locates the required medicine box using the shortest path possible, removes it and hands it over to its fellow robot pharmacist, the IRB 1200. Powered by 3D vision, the IRB 1200 picks out the medicines according to the prescription from the box and places them into a basket located on the other side of the set up. A conveyor delivers the basket to a human pharmacist, who makes one final check of the content before sending it out for delivery.

The IRB 1200’s 3D vision technology enables it to automatically switch fixtures according to the shape of the medicine box. The robot uses two types of vacuum grippers – one to pick up medicine boxes and the other to handle more delicate medicine glass vials. The robot is also equipped with machine learning capabilities to improve the accuracy of its selection and picking tasks over time. Once the correct medicines have been picked and placed, the IRB 2600 returns the medicine box to its designated shelf. The two robots only pause when all the required medicines have been placed in the basket.

The advantage of automation

Chinese regulations that require only qualified pharmacists to dispense drugs have caused a shortage of trained professionals who can work in pharmacies. This, coupled with a lack of interest in repetitive, boring work such as inventory registration, has made it expensive to run pharmacies manually. ABB analysis shows that repetitive tasks could be completed up to 50 per cent faster with automation, compared to current manual processes, with the added benefit that robots can work 24 hours a day. Instead of spending hours filling up prescriptions, human workers can perform more rewarding tasks that require human judgment.

Drug dispensing robots can also drastically reduce the margin of error that is unavoidable during manual operations. Iimages stored via the 3D vision camera system offers 100 percent traceability of every single medicine that has been processed by the system, thereby enhancing safety of the whole pharmaceutical process.

Finally, the system enables the hospital to conduct real-time drug inventory management. If the robot detects the absence of a drug, the system automatically prompts a re-supply of the required medicines, enabling drugs to be delivered faster to patients.

"The robot pharmacy automation system is a paradigm shift in the healthcare sector and truly represents the Hospital of the Future where humans, supported by automation, can more seamlessly and effectively deliver critical care to patients,“ said Marc Segura, Managing Director, Consumer Segment& Service Robotics at ABB.  

Flexibility for the future                          

The compact design and modular nature of the robotic pharmacy enables the setup to move around the the Seventh People’s Hospital according to need. In order to provide patients with efficient diagnosis, treatment, and healthcare services, Shanghai Seventh People’s Hospital is utilizing the latest automation, digital, and smart technologies from ABB to transform the healthcare sector into an efficient, effective industry.

Vice President Gao Xiaoyan added: "At present, we have achieved the automatic dispensing of drugs at the pharmacy, and we plan to use robots to deliver drugs to the inpatient wards, to complete the pharmacy work loop. Additionally, in the hospital's PIVAS (pharmacy intravenous admixture service), medical staff must dispense chemotherapeutic drugs which are harmful to the human body. Moreover, some drugs are only effective within a short period of time after they are dispensed. We will consider using robots to take over these tasks, to protect our staff as well as improve the time-effectiveness and safety of PIVAS."


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