Disruptive technologies or new opportunities for pharmacy and healthcare?


We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run,

and underestimate the effect in the long run” – Amara’s Law


I remember as a pharmacy student on work experience completing my first patient drug history; I was baffled that in the 21st century this process still involved ringing a GP surgery, speaking to the secretary, sending over a fax request, and waiting for a scanned copy to arrive. Often by the time we had the information we needed, the patient had been transferred to another ward and would miss out on vital pharmacist input. However, when I started my pre-registration year pharmacists already had access to the digital summary care record, and all that was required for access to potentially lifesaving information was patient consent and the click of a mouse.

These small changes, along with many others, are the first steps of a revolution in the role of the healthcare professional. In 2012 IBM released a video outlining their blue sky vision for healthcare in 2020, they predicted that the dissolution of boundaries for information between healthcare professionals would lead to a new collaborative healthcare model, with improved patient outcomes; already in 2015 we’re seeing this vision become a reality.

Take for instance the field of computing. The supercomputer Watson is famed for beating human contestants on the gameshow Jeopardy, with its ability to understand natural language, generate competing hypotheses, and not merely store data, but find meaning in it. However, this is just one utilisation of Watson, with enough data the machine learning algorithms can be turned to a number of different tasks; when he’s not playing gameshows Watson spends his time being a doctor, and he’s already getting rather good at it.

Watson can read radiology images, and by contrasting a patient’s image results with its archive of 30 billion X-rays, CT scans and MRI scans, it can diagnose patients with a startling degree of accuracy. In 2013, when given access to the necessary data, Watson accurately diagnosed early Lung Cancer in over 90% of cases, compared to the 50% accuracy of his human counterparts.

Now of course there will always be controversy regarding the sharing of such sensitive patient information, and rightly so. Yet with the correct safeguards in place, sharing data between qualified and vetted healthcare professionals could have a huge impact on patient care.

Perhaps sooner than we think, a computer like Watson will read a patients drug history, clinical observations, and laboratory results, compare this with the millions of similar cases it’s seen and provide healthcare professionals with real time diagnoses and medicine recommendations.

Sound farfetched? It’s already happening now.

In July this year the major American pharmacy chain CVS struck a deal with the company behind Watson to use their analytics in 7,600 of their stores. Watson will analyse patient health data, syncing with pharmacy records, and patient wearable devices to alert patients and healthcare professionals of scenarios such diabetic emergencies before they occur.

But where does this leave the role of the pharmacist?

When robots first began infiltrating pharmacies, there was justifiable concern over what would become of the role of the pharmacist. In the UK the spread of robots has so far been limited to hospitals, where they have liberated pharmacists to go out onto the wards; however in Germany robots in the community are far more widespread. What we’ve seen in Germany is a diversification in the role of the pharmacist, where they are free to carry our health checks and communicate with patients as to the benefits of medicines, which has yielded some impressive results.

The current evidence base seems to suggest that instead of displacing pharmacists, the introduction of new technologies frees pharmacists to take on new roles, such as those currently being championed by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

It appears that pharmacists will still remain the experts on medicines for many years to come, yet by sharing some of the cognitive work load with smart machines such as Watson we can free ourselves from much of the drudgery, and provide greater outcomes for our patients.

By Daniel Sutcliffe LinkedIn Profile

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