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A pill-popping kiosk

The self-serve PharmaTrust kiosks, in test mode at Sunnybrook HealthSciences Centre, have served hundreds of people with considerablesuccess.

Just like an ATM, but instead of bills, these machines pop out pills.

Welcome to the future of pharmacy.

The self-serve PharmaTrust kiosks, in test mode at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, have served hundreds of people with considerable success – almost 95 per cent of people who inserted their prescription and health card into a machine got their medication in less than five minutes, according to a survey done by the company.

“Patients are intrigued by the fact that it is easy to use. It’s quick and they don’t have to drive somewhere and wait for the pharmacist,” said Dr. Sharon Domb, director of family medicine at Sunnybrook, where the kiosks have been set up since January.

But as the idea grows, so do questions about how the technology will affect the business of pharmacy.

“I think people will have concerns about how it will be used,” said Jeff Poston, executive director of the Canadian Pharmacists Association.

The dispensing system was developed by PCA Services Inc. of Oakville. While they say the machines will, for example, help improve service in remote areas, others fear it may eliminate altogether the need for face-to-face service by pharmacists. Especially since the kiosk is equipped with phones and two-way video camera capabilities, and mimics, as much as possible, a real pharmacy setting.

Here’s how it works: The machine makes a scan of the prescription, which is transmitted to the pharmacist at the main PCA site who is processing the order.

The pharmacist will approve the order, provide drug information and note possible side-effects, and ensure that it is stocked in the machine, which can hold up to 340 medications.

The drugs are identified through radio frequency identification tags on the product.

They are again verified by the remote pharmacist, and then eventually dispensed.

Of the 800 people who have used the machines so far, there have been no mistakes, or incorrectly filled prescriptions, said Peter Suma, president and co-founder of PCA Services.

However, one-third of the people who used the kiosks found the drugs they wanted weren’t stocked. But the company offers free shipping of the medication the following day, Suma said.

For now, the PharmaTrust machines are only being used in test runs.

Two other facilities are soon scheduled to test the machines — the emergency room of Cambridge Memorial Hospital and the Albany Medical Clinic on Danforth Ave.

Suma says the plan is to expand the kiosks to clinics, hospitals and even grocery stores.

But the likelihood of such kiosks being available anywhere in Ontario is contingent upon legislation, which currently does not allow for remote dispensing.

Earlier this month, the Ontario College of Pharmacists recommended changes to the law, which would allow for remote dispensing, by a machine or person, as long as a pharmacist monitored the transaction.

The legislation, if passed, would open the door for PharmaTrust in September 2009, the college says.