Pharma-Futures: Yesterday’s Visions for Tomorrow’s Tech Is Influencing Today’s Pharmacies
It’s time to retire that catchphrase, “Science Fiction has become Science FACT,” because we’re now living in an age where parents struggle to figure out Skype settings to talk to their children, and our phones computational abilities if properly applied could send an Apollo-level mission to the moon and back.
For the connected, contemporary pharmacist, there are developments now that can only improve the kind of outreach and care the practice can provide. In partnership with scientists, coders and engineers, administering medication in a therapeutic environment is indistinguishable from the old neighborhood shop, or the counter at your local supermarket. As a population ages and requires more from the healthcare system, the technology at the pharmacists’ disposal will dictate the quality of service.
A VIRTUAL THERAPEUTIC REALITY
Around the early 1990s there was talk about how Virtual Reality would change the world—after you put on those swell heavy goggles. And then no one heard about VR—but much was still being developed and advanced while we all were worried about doomed digital IPOs and Apple’s resurgence. VR has returned in a big way and has much to offer.
One of the promising applications for VR technology is in its use in various therapies, mostly psychological. Pharmacists and engineers for the Swedish company, Apotek Hjärtat (literally, “Pharmacy Heart”), have collaborated on a way to minimize pain experiences by placing clients in an easygoing universe they can explore called “Happy Place.” The environment resembles a lakeside picnic where you can imagine yourself fishing, observe cavorting deer, or simply watch the passing of an overhead cloud. The experience of pain is mostly psychological, and researchers discovered that clients were more relaxed and receptive to treatment.
THE ELECTRIC CLASSROOM
It’s all well and good to send your clientele on a dream vacation while they’re coping with their pain experiences, but how do you figure out how to talk to them about their pain levels and medication schedule? These days the “virtual patient” is a strategy to encourage budding pharmacists to ask helpful questions.
The idea is to move students beyond rote answers to the more nuanced, day-to-day issues they will experience. Interactive software creates a simulation for students to learn how to truly listen to their clients’ needs. Students work through simulations involving clients from different demographics and communities.
In some simulations, students are assigned to a “waiting room:” a web address where their virtual patient resides. They are then prompted to prescribe medications to the virtual patient’s issues, adjust dosages, and offer preventive health advice. Afterward, student participants are evaluated on their decisions.
In the old space epic, “Forbidden Planet,” there’s a scene where Robbie the Robot cranks out nearly limitless quantities of space hooch for astronauts. In our real contemporary world, a robotic dispenser system can quickly process nearly limitless prescriptions.
More akin to Robbie the Robot are the automated medical marijuana dispensers. A big block that requires a patient swipe card and a biometric finger that confirms client identity and lets them know how much money is left on their account, as well as their monthly prescription allotment.
Automation has greatly improved the pharmacy workflow, allowing the pharmacist to focus more on in-person client relationships. In more widespread use, robot prescription and dispensing systems created by companies such as Scriptpro, can fill, label, verify and dispense medications. They don’t have floppy arms to flail around, but they can do plenty within their rectangular frames. One model Scriptpro produces can process over 200 prescriptions an hour! The systems come in different models and sizes, and are space efficient.
Back in the 1960s there was this film, “Fantastic Voyage,” a story about a team of scientists shrunk down to microscopic size, who ride around a microscopic submarine and are injected into a gravely-ill man. Along the way, they get into fights with white blood cells and report back their progress. “Fantastic Voyage” seems silly with its tiny scientists speeding around in a tiny sub inside a large human being, but it prophesied the new frontier of “personalized medicine.” Sending a tiny machine to transmit information from your insides to the outside world is just another tool in contemporary medicine.
Companies, such as Proteus out in California, in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies are devising ways to learn how a patient’s medication is working in real time. The strategy Proteus devised relies on a triad of tech relays: they attach a tiny computer to the pill a patient ingests; the computer sends information out to a skin patch relay station; the skin-patch station uploads information to the patient’s phone! The information the ingested computer sends out can let patient, pharmacist and doctor know when the drug was taken, manufacturer information, and any fluctuations in the patient’s condition. This information can be useful to drug companies looking to improve or specialize prescribed medications.
It’s easy to look back on yesterday’s futures and laugh at how filmmakers and authors thought we’d be living today. But we need out-of-the ordinary visionaries to prompt real invention. The borders between the cybernetic and the organic are constantly dissolving and will continue for the foreseeable future. The good news is these inventions are providing a helpful, real-world service.