Talon medication dispensing system

Medication Dispensing Systems: What They Are and How They’re Changing How Hospitals Deliver Care

Defining The Medication Dispensing System

As hospitals and health care facilities look to increase efficiencies and reduce costs, medication dispensing systems and other digitized solutions often come into focus. Technology gives health care facilities a better option in how they dispense medications. By automating the medication dispensing system, risks decrease and workflows can be optimized for ultimate efficiencies.

According to the School of Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), an automatic medication dispensing system is “a computerized drug storage and dispensing device used in health care settings like hospitals and nursing homes, and are located at the point of care (the ward, ICU, ED) rather than in the central pharmacy.” The machines not only properly dispense medications, but they also control inventory and assure secure access by authorized users only.

The Need for Better Medication Management

With medication errors and medication diversion top concerns at most hospitals and health care facilities, solutions that help these organizations better manage their medications are worth the investment. The technology enables tracking of both the medications and the authorized users. For instance, authorized users must use a password to gain entry into the system. Even more innovative devices utilize biometrics, requiring a verified fingerprint to gain entry.

Staff members must pass additional gates before patients receive their medications. Once the software authenticates the staff member via their unique password or fingerprint, they must then select their patient and prescribed medication. Because the software interfaces with the pharmacy’s main medication information system, an instant cross-check verifies alignment of the right personnel, patient, and medication before the cabinet opens and dispenses the requested medication.

While these multiple layers of security may, at first, seem to cause friction in workflows, it actually does the opposite. Instead of nurses having to visit the central pharmacy for each patient’s medications or request medications from the pharmacy and wait for delivery, pharmacy technicians transport the medications from the central pharmacy directly to the point-of-care medication dispensing system. This reduces the amount of time and effort required for nurses to obtain their patients’ medications. As nurse workflows are more efficient, patients receive faster care. Nurses also have more time to spend with each patient as they are spending less time traveling back and forth to the pharmacy.

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Even more, the auditable tracking system with the embedded cross-referencing technology greatly reduces the risk for patients receiving the wrong medication. This provides a big advantage over the manual dispensing of the past. In a hospital setting, “manual” can mean mistakes. The National Health Service (NHS) in England reports prescribing errors and mix-ups contribute to as many as 22,300 deaths each year. Among this sobering number are plenty of instances where patients were given the wrong medications. Even while patients trust their doctors with their lives, the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) admits that doctors and nurses “are human and mistakes occasionally happen.”

Technology Is Making A Difference

The software in most medication dispensing systems greatly reduce the risk of human error. Many solutions display instant drug-allergy alerts and notify pharmacists of drug interactions during the prescription-filling process. Additionally, the software flags any high-risk medications to make sure the doctor and the pharmacist are on the same page with actual patient needs. Another advantage of an automated system is its ability to reduce mistakes for nurses choosing a medication that sounds or looks similar to the one prescribed. This has been one of the greatest contributors to medication dispensing errors.

According to a report by U.S. Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit organization that sets standards for medications in the U.S., approximately 1,500 drugs have names so similar they’ve been reportedly confused with another medication. More than 66 million drug mistakes can be attributed to dispensing errors of this kind, up to 20 percent of those mistakes linked to nurses.

Related: Are Medication Management Systems The Answer to Medication Error Prevention?

Clearly, hospitals and health care facilities must do better. They can prevent many of these errors with medication dispensing systems. The remaining risk lies with the protocols put forth by the health care organization. Protocols are not just relegated to nursing, either. Because risk begins in the pharmacy, strict protocols begin there.

Where to Begin

The pharmacy is responsible for filling the automated dispensing cabinets with the right medications for each patient. They, too, are at risk for selecting a medication that looks like or is spelled similarly to another medication. To prevent this from occurring, hospital pharmacies typically use an eMAR (Electronic Medication Administration Record) system. Using barcoding technology, the eMAR system enables pharmacists to fill prescriptions with hand-held scanners that read barcodes on the medication packaging. The barcode information includes valuable data, such as medication dosages, number of refills, medication classifications, patient refill history, and real-time prescription status. The system instantly transmits the data to the pharmacist and nurse workstations.

The eMAR not only speeds the prescribing process, but it safeguards against many common dispensing errors. Combined with medication dispensing systems, hospitals and health care facilities can greatly reduce their risks for preventable medication errors.

For health care facilities, these two technologies are making a big difference. As with most comprehensive solutions, there is a greater benefit when hospitals combine multiple systems. A medication dispensing system is, of course, not the only investment in which hospital executives need to make. Their best bet is to find the right mix of products, tools, and technology.

First, Assess.

Hospital and health care leaders must first assess their current requirements and workflows. This evaluation should be from the bottom-up, not top-down. Executives are often unaware of what’s really going on in the pharmacy or the patient floor. Pharmacists and their technicians, nurses, and physicians all need to take part and deserve a seat at the table, so to speak. Gaining a wide variety of opinions and testimonies of all stakeholders is important to gain a ground-level understanding of which solutions are working, where staff needs the most help and where improvements can be made in each area.

In some cases, existing systems and equipment only need updating. Technology rapidly changes and, unfortunately, investments in these areas five or so years ago may already be outdated. Upgrades may end up costing more than replacement, however, and a thorough assessment must be conducted to determine if buying new is a better option.

As hospitals get smarter in how they deliver care, better solutions arise. There will always be manufacturers who stay ahead of demand and deliver what health care facilities didn’t know they needed until they use. The right tool, or, more likely, a combination of solutions, can completely change how a hospital delivers care. The demand for these innovative solutions will likely only continue to grow, giving hospitals and health care facilities a greater opportunity to improve their services while becoming more efficient and profitable.

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