Updated 29 November 2013

Automated pharmacy at SA’s busiest HIV clinic reduces wait times from 4 hours to 18 minutes

The first robotically automated pharmacy has been introduced in a public health facility in South Africa.

South Africa’s busiest HIV clinic sees up to 750 patients a day with more than 17 000 patients on ARVs. In response to lengthy patient queues and overworked pharmacist staff, the first robotically automated pharmacy has been introduced in a public health facility in South Africa. This innovation addresses the concerns of patients needing HIV and other chronic medicines at the Right to Care’s Themba Lethu HIV Clinic at Johannesburg’s Helen Joseph Hospital.

Right to Care is South Africa’s leading HIV/Aids NGO. Funding for the initiative was provided by USAID.

The automation system demonstrates the latest technologies in pharmacy dispensing and Themba Lethu Clinic has seen patient waiting times in the pharmacy drop from over four hours to 18 minutes.  The system has also eliminated the loss of stock due to drug expiry which will save the Department of Health millions of Rands.

How does the system work?

Doctors in the clinic write electronic scripts which then link directly into a patient management system in the pharmacy using cloud technology systems. Medicines are then automatically dispensed and are available for handover by pharmacy staff shortly after the patient arrives at the pharmacy.

The system holds all the medicine stock in a secure container and a robotic picking head is used to quickly dispense the medicines to the pharmacist.  It was not just a machine that was installed, but systems and processes for stock control management and pharmacy dispensing that are aligned to a new way of work flow and responsibility within the pharmacy. 

Dr Papi Majuba, Right to Care’s Chief Medical Officer comments, “Patients now receive their drugs very quickly, which leaves more time for patient counselling from the pharmacy staff.  Picking errors and have been reduced to zero and patient care has improved.  Patients are now more compliant on their medicines as a result of not having to spend the whole day at the clinic.”                                                                                               

With increased efficiencies, the staff requirement to run the pharmacy has been drastically reduced, allowing for pharmacy personnel to be used for supportive functions in the wards and throughout the clinic.  The pharmacy used to close at 19h30, with staff working overtime.  Now the pharmacy sees all patients by 15h00. 


Kurt Firnhaber, COO of Right to Care adds, “Right to Care has received international recognition for one of the many innovations it is has developed in support of public health in South Africa. We believe that through the advancements and innovation of automation in medicine dispensing there will be enormous benefits to the patients who access services through the Department of Health”.

Right to Care is also working with the National Health Insurance (NHI) to expand this innovation at a further three sites in Tshwane.

Future plans and developments

The next development which is not yet available anywhere in the world, includes the use of Pharmacy Dispensing Units (PDUs), developed by Right to Care Health Services which are like ATMs, that will deliver drugs to patients 24 hours a day, with support from Right to Care’s call centre pharmacy.  Patients will be able to obtain drugs at PDUs simply by using their South African bar coded ID or health card.  This innovation also uses a cloud based pharmacy and data system that will manage these remote PDUs. 

The support of Liberty Life will play an important role in developing this approach to bringing medicines to people needing chronic medicines.  Right to Care is also working closely with the Department of Health, the Pharmacy Council and the National Health Insurance to advance this technology.

Right to Cares won a major international award for its system that automates pharmacy systems in high volume treatment centres. It won the category of the Best Enterprise & IT Architecture in Government/Defence/Public Sector. The award, which was selected from projects submitted from 27 different countries, was presented in Bangalore, India at the iCMG Conference of Enterprise & IT Architecture 2013. Previous winners and finalists include many well known multi-national companies, IT specialist and governments from around the world.

See the system in operation by clicking here


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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria in 2005. She is a patients' rights activist and loves using social media to teach about HIV. She is in private practice in Johannesburg.

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