Popping pills — out of a machine
MetroSouth Medical Center is first hospital in Illinois to install prescription vending machines
Charles Wilson and Lydia Claudio wait near the InstyMeds machine in the emergency room at MetroSouth Medical Center in Blue Island. The machine allows patients to fill their prescriptions before leaving the hospital. (Shauna Bittle/For the Chicago Tribune)
Minneapolis-based InstyMeds Corp., the health care industry's first ATM-style dispenser of acute care prescription drugs, began rolling out the machines three years ago at urgent care centers and hospitals in states such as California, Wisconsin, Florida and Tennessee.
Central DuPage Hospital Convenient Care Centers in Bartlett, Bloomingdale, Naperville, St. Charles and Wheaton have had the machines since late 2008, and an urgent care clinic in a suburb of St. Louis started offering the service in March.
But MetroSouth is the first hospital in the state to install one of the machines –– a 24-hour dispenser in the south suburban hospital's emergency room.
"The InstyMeds are much easier for patients to use instead of leaving the hospital and going to a pharmacy," said Erin Shaughnessy, director of the pharmacy at MetroSouth. "Everyone who has used it has liked it. They'll say, 'You mean I can be seen, get my medications here and go home?' It's very efficient for us and the patient."
The technology, however, has raised serious safety concerns among some in the health care industry, especially pharmacists.
"If you take the health care practitioner out of the delivery of care and circumvent them with technology –– no matter how smart the machine, no matter how good the doctor –– it is the pharmacist who has the expertise and knowledge to consult with a patient," said Jon Roth, CEO of the California Pharmacists Association.
The machines offer more than 1,000 drugs commonly prescribed for acute illnesses and injuries, such as antibiotics, antihistamines and inhalers. Controlled medications such as oxycodone, known as Schedule II drugs, can also be dispensed, depending on a state's laws.
To use InstyMeds, patients enter a code their physician has given them on the machine's touch-screen monitor and then swipe their debit or credit card to pay. Patients pay the same amount as they would at a pharmacy. The machine then dispenses the medication in a prepackaged, labeled container.
The machines perform a triple bar-code safety check and allocate medications in about two minutes, said Emily Theisen, marketing manager for InstyMeds. The machines accept most private insurance plans and cash payments. Acceptance of Medicare and Medicaid prescriptions varies by state.
Established in 2001, InstyMeds is the brainchild of emergency room physician Ken Rosenblum. One evening in 1999, he was unable to fill a prescription for his 5-year-old son, who had been diagnosed with an ear infection. The experience prompted Rosenblum to develop a more efficient means for patients to receive prescribed medications.
The company has rented out machines to about 200 medical facilities in 34 states at an average cost of $1,000 to $1,500 a month per machine, depending on what options a hospital requests, Theisen said. The rental includes access to a 24/7 call center with a pharmacist or pharmacy tech available to answer patients' questions
"They've been working really well," said Darin E. Jordan, medical director of Convenient Care Centers for Central DuPage Hospital. "Patients appreciate the convenience of being able to start their medications immediately."