February 14, 2014

NEW FRONTIERS IN AUTOMATION: A Drug-Dealing Robot That Upends the Pharmacy Model.

For all the emphasis on design in the business world, there are entire classes of objects and experiences that feel stuck in time. Take a trip to the pharmacy—you wait in line, peruse the latest celebrity scandal in US Weekly, ponder whether peanut M&M’s purchased at the pharmacy count as health food, and pray that no embarrassing instructions accompany your meds.

A startup pharmacy called PillPack hopes to change this archaic process. For $20 a month, PillPack will deliver prescription drugs to patients with the efficiency of Amazon Prime. Pillpack came to life thanks to a new incubator program at the famed design consultancy IDEO and the core of their service is a small blue box that organizes all of your med into “dose packets,” little plastic baggies marked with the date and time they’re to be taken. A jumble of amber bottles are replaced by an efficient to-do list made of drugs.

This simple innovation makes life easier for seniors who can be a bit forgetful and have difficulty with bottles. Younger patients with active lifestyles and chronic diseases can just pull as many packets as they need and go. The trail of empty packets means there is never any doubt about missed doses, and each order comes with a custom infographic that shows a full color picture of each pill, explains what it does, and clarifies any special instructions. Ointments, inhalers, and other non-pill products are included in the box as well. All told, PillPack means you’ll never have to help your grandma sort pills into a tacky day-of-the-week organizer again. . . .

The technical backbone of PillPack is a suite of drug-dealing robots. A large, beige machine in PillPack’s New Hampshire office is filled with a cornucopia of curatives which are dispensed into the plastic packets. The strip of dose packs is then fed through another robot that reviews each plastic packet for quality control purposes before a team of pharmacists double check the prescriptions and send them off to patients.

Robot dispensers aren’t new, but this business model is.