Slate’s technology writer Farhad Manjoo has had an interesting series of article on the increasing use of robots and automation in what many would consider white-collar profession. Despite the somewhat alarmist title (Will Robots Steal Your Job?), the series is a fairly evenhanded look at how technology is evolving. I found the piece on pharmacists particularly interesting (My father the pharmacist vs. a gigantic pill-packing machine, Sep 26). As the article suggests, Manjoo’s dad is a pharmacist so he has more than a passing interest in what happens in this market. What is happening is that pill sellers — whether hospitals or retail pharmacists — are relying more and more on machines to dispense pills. Here is a video of University of California-San Francisco’s pill-counting wonder:
Before installing the robot, UCSF needed about half of its more than 100 on-staff pharmacists to administer and check the drugs going out to patients on the floor; now nearly all have been reassigned to different parts of the hospital, where they make IVs, help adjust patients’ drug regimens, and perform other tasks that had been neglected when they were simply filling prescriptions The robotic pharmacy cost $7 million to install—less than one year’s salary for all those pharmacists—and when it’s running at full capacity, it can dispense more than 10,000 doses a day. After it became operational last year, the robot filled 350,000 prescriptions without making a single error. (The first error it did encounter was a printer problem that was quickly caught by its human operators.)
Machines for retail pharmacies (as opposed to big teaching medical centers) cost about $200,000. To put those numbers in perspective, consider the following trends in pharmacist pay.
Medicine is a growth industry; as the nation ages, we’ll all need more drugs. Citing this demand, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 17 percent increase in the need for pharmacists over the next decade. The high demand for pharmacists has also led to steady wage growth—in 2010, the median salary for an American pharmacist was $111,000, almost 70 percent more than what he earned in 1999.
But people familiar with the pace of technological change in pharmacies don’t buy the government’s projections. The few who are optimistic about the prospects for human pharmacists are hanging their hopes on legal strictures. “Most pharmacists are employed only because the law says that there has to be a pharmacist present to dispense drugs,” one pharmacist told me. In other words it’s not the pharmacists’ skills that will keep them employed—it’s the fact that the humans have good unions, and good lobbyists. Once the law catches up to the reality of robot superiority, the humans will be out on the street.
So pharmacists are relatively expensive labor, they are in tight supply, and much of what they do is pretty mundane. Hence, it is not too surprising that there are gains from substituting capital for labor.
What’s nice about the pharmacy example is that the sameness between jobs is very evident. That is, consecutive orders that are being processed might be for different patients with very different needs but some tasks such as counting pills or affixing a label are obviously the same and there is not a whole lot of training needed to do them well. Hence, they are perfect for automation. Other articles in the series focus on industries where the sameness between jobs may not be as clear (e.g., medicine and law) but it is still there raising the question of what can done by machine.
There are aspects of this that remind me of the reengineering boom of the mid-90s. There the focus was on back office work — things like writing insurance policies. The reality was that these processes were often very labor intensive with remnants remaining from the day when forms were actually typed. Process redesign generally emphasized automating what was very common and saving humans for true exceptions.
What will be left for human pharmacists? The article suggest that they will be much more involved in true patient care. That may be counseling patients with questions about their prescriptions or working with doctors to develop appropriate courses of treatment. Of course, these are in many ways the exceptions, not the norm. If my kid is diagnosed with a strep throat, I just need the antibiotic with an emphasis on speed and convenience over handholding. It is not clear how many pharmacists will be needed if robots suck up all the mundane work.