Regular visits to public hospitals and clinics in Gauteng are dreaded by many, principally because of the typical queues and the long hours one has to sacrifice just to get one’s hands on life-saving chronic medication. In the sprawling Alexandra township, north-east of Johannesburg, patients on chronic medication lose working days which translates to money, and are seated on cold benches as nurses and pharmacists sort out their medication.
That could be a thing of the past, with the launch of Africa’s first Pharmacy Dispensing Unit (PDU), also referred to as the “ATM pharmacy” which uses electronic, robotic and cloud-based technology to capture, select, dispense, label, and directly convey prescribed medication to patients at offsite venues away from hospitals and clinics.
Among other relieved patients who rely on the government-issued medication, Alexandra resident Bathandwa Mbele said the PDU innovation is a game-changer, as the hours she spent recurrently as hospitals can now be used for work and on a social life.
“The use of the machine will now ensure that when my child arrives from school, they find me at home, and I cook for them. That is the time we also help my child with her homework. So I am very happy,” Mbele said while speaking to journalists gathered for the launch.
The ATM pharmacy is programmed to dispense repeat medication to patients with chronic illnesses in under three minutes.
The innovative PDU is the first of its kind in Africa and was developed by a team comprising experts from non-profit organisation Right to Care and Right ePharmacy, in collaboration with the Gauteng department of health headed by Ramokgopa. The PDU works with Skype-like audio-visual interaction between patient and tele-pharmacists, cloud based electronic software and robotic technology to dispense and label medication.
Right to Care chief executive, Professor Ian Sanne said the long hours spent by South Africans queuing at health facilities are detrimental to economic growth and production.
“One of our staff members went for a first visit at a clinic yesterday [Wednesday]. They arrived as patient number 17 at one of the clinics, and left eight hours later. So these incredible waiting times are costing not only people in their individual capacities, but we have published that it actually costs the patient an average of R150 each time they go to a department of health facility for their visits or to collect their medicines,” he said.
“Not only does it cost the patient time and effort, it is costing workdays lost and costing the economy. In partnership with USAID and the GIZ [the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit – a German federal enterprise that supports the German government in achieving objectives in the field of international cooperation for sustainable development] respectively the US government, the German government and in partnership with Mach4, who are the technology partner from Germany, we have been able to build these pharmacy facilities.”