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OM in the News: The Case of the Vanishing Drugs

February 25, 2014
The Aethon Tug mobile robot delivering meds at U. of Maryland hospital

The Aethon Tug mobile robot delivering meds at U. of Maryland hospital

“Hospitals have a drug problem.,” writes The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 24, 2014),  “and they’re looking to technology to solve it.” The problem is the way medications are being mishandled by hospital pharmacies and wards. Inventory management is inefficient, drugs are too often misplaced, and narcotic medications are prone to theft.  In addition to turning to password-protected dispensing machines, RFID tags and roaming robots to deliver prescriptions, hospitals are adopting software that tracks every dose of medication to identify suspicious activity.

By making it easier to track medicines, the changes give nurses more time to spend with patients. Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, for example, estimates that its medication-tracking system saves the hospital $600,000 a year just in time lost from pharmacists, technicians and nurses locating meds. The new systems also help improve patient safety by identifying staffers who are siphoning drugs for their own use, a problem known as “diversion.” About 15% of health-care professionals are addicted to prescription drugs at some point in their career. These drug-related inventory losses cost millions each year. The software also allow hospitals to better manage inventory by not stocking medicines that are never used, or by keeping just enough of expensive drugs on hand to meet demand.

At the University of Maryland Medical Center, mobile robots deliver medications to nursing units. Pharmacy staffers print a label, scan and place the medication in one of the robot’s locked drawers, and then enter a destination into a program that communicates wirelessly with the robot. The robot navigates its way to the right unit, where a nurse uses a passcode and fingerprint scanner to retrieve the medication. Delivery reliability—how often the drugs arrive at the unit as promised—has increased by 23%, and delivery predictability—how often they get there within the time promised—has risen by 50%. The per-trip cost with a robot averages $2.40, down from $5.50 for hand delivery, and in its first year the system freed up 6,123 hours of nurses’ time.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why is inventory control so important in hospitals?

2. What is the danger of “diversion”?

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