Africa's first pharmacy ATM to cut Gauteng hospital queues was launched on Thursday Photo: Jonisayi Maromo / ANA

JOHANNESBURG - 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.


Professor Ian Sanne, chief executive of non-profit organisation Right to Care speaking at the launch of the groundbreaking Pharmacy Dispensing Unit, also known as the ATM Pharmacy, in Alexandra, Johannesburg Video: Jonisayi Maromo / ANA

“The queues at the clinic are always too long. First of all, you must get there very early. You find that at 7: 30am, they would not have opened, they open at around 8am. I am sure some patients would get to the clinic by 4am. Then you find that we are at the clinic for different issues – there are pregnant women, and people who are sick. Some like me would just be there to collect our medication only. We are supposed to just pick our medication and leave. It has been difficult.”


Mbele said at the clinics, significant hours are lost while one awaits their medical history files, which are kept at the health facilities.


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.


Charge d’Affaires at the United States mission in South Africa Jessye Lapenn said the launch of the PDU on Thursday was a significant milestone in the longstanding partnership between Pretoria and Washington in the fight against HIV/Aids.


“The US and South Africa have an extraordinary partnership through Pepfar [the United States President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] to address HIV/Aids in South Africa. That partnership goes back to 2004, and today is a really significant milestone in its course. Today we are in the township of Alexandra, visiting a Pharmacy Dispensing Unit. It is an ATM-like machine that people can come to, to receive their medicines for HIV and other chronic diseases,” she said.


“This is a wonderful example of the history, and the commitment of US HIV support in South Africa where we take new ideas, new technology, and we develop new solutions to the significant and persistent problem of HIV/Aids here.”


Gauteng Health MEC, Dr Gwen Ramokgopa said the robotic machines will curb the perennial congestion and queuing characteristic with the public health facilities.


“We have leveraged the ICTs, digitalisation of the economy to benefit the health of our people. The Pharmacy Dispensing Unit will assist us to reduce congestion in the public health facilities. Already in Gauteng we have over 400,000 that are receiving their medicines offsite, as part of decongesting our facilities,” said Ramokgopa.


“Currently they [receive their medication] through the pharmacists that are there in the retail stores and also some that are stand-alone. This technology will assist in reaching with more services to our patients without compromising safety. There are pharmacist assistants on site, and at the machine, through Skype technology it is also possible to get counselling on how to utilise your medication, to find out if you are having side-effects before medicine is dispensed through robotic technology.”

African News Agency/ANA