Dispensing with pharmacy students as robots take over
IT MIGHT be one of the most coveted university degrees in Ireland, but students anxiously waiting to see if they will be offered a place on a pharmacy course come Monday might want to think twice about their options.
By the time they have qualified, they might find robots will have taken over their jobs.
Pharmacy has traditionally attracted some of the brightest and the best in Ireland. Places are limited to about 200 a year, with just University College Cork, Trinity College Dublin and the Royal College of Surgeons, offering pharmacy degrees. Last year, students needed at least 530 points to be offered a place, and this year it is expected to rise even higher.
Now one of the largest chains of retail pharmacies in Ireland, Sam McCauley, has revealed that it is investing in “new robotic dispensing systems” in a number of outlets around the State.
Already the Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, branch of the chain has “hired” its first robot.
It started work back in February, and is busy helping dispense prescriptions, although the outlet is keen to stress that a qualified pharmacist is also on hand to work alongside the robot.
A robot does not replace the work of a pharmacist, explained president of the Irish Pharmacy Union, Rory O’Donnell.
“Someone ultimately has to check everything before it goes to the patient,” he said, likening the work of the robots to that of warehouse handlers in Argos, in that they help take the drugs from the shelves. It is the pharmacist, however, who labels the prescription and applies the final checks.
Proponents of the new robot suggest that it improves accuracy, helps with stock control and allows pharmacists to spend more time with their customers. However, cost must also be an issue.
Given that the price of a robot can run into six figures, it represents a sizeable investment for pharmacies who will look to recoup their money somehow.
Pharmacies are required at present to have one trained pharmacist on site, regardless of the size of their premises or turnover.
The arrival of robots comes against a background of declining sales in the sector.
Financial results from the Sam McCauley group for the year to September 30th, 2011, available yesterday, show the chain saw its pretax profits more than double at a time when the sector as a whole has been suffering from falling sales.
Indeed, while profits rose by 125 per cent to €3.6 million at Sam McCauley, sales fell off slightly, down by 1 per cent to €80.3 million.
And the most recent CSO retail sales figures for June, showed that the sale of pharmaceuticals, medical and cosmetic products have declined by almost 2 per cent on an annual basis.