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DoD pharmacy innovation improves patient safety and convenience

A pharmacy technician opens a locker holding prescription medication Staff Sgt. Dustin Stevens, 7th Medical Support Squadron pharmacy technician, opens a locker in the ScriptCenter at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, Feb. 26, 2020. Larger refill prescription orders will be available in the lockers beside the machine. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Mercedes Porter)

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Military health beneficiaries across the Department of Defense will soon have the option to pick up their prescriptions from lockers by using two forms of authentication. With a quick scan of their ID (Common Access Card or a state ID), and by inputting their date of birth or fingerprints, beneficiaries can unlock their medications.

The pharmacy equivalent of an automated teller machine, or ATM, that dispenses medications instead of cash is cutting-edge technology that’s not new to the DoD, according to Air Force Maj. Jennifer Wang, a pharmacy flight commander at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California.

“For the Air Force, we jumped on this train pretty early. The first unit was installed in June 2009,” Wang said. There are currently 27 units at Air Force bases in the U.S. and Europe, with plans to add more than 20 units throughout the Military Health System beginning fall 2020 through 2021. “There will be a phased rollout based on each site’s unique circumstances. Some sites already have power and network in place, so those sites will likely go first,” said Wang. Other sites must transition to the Defense Health Agency’s common network security system ­ Medical Community of Interest or Med-COI ­in order to install the locker units.

Over the past decade, the technology evolved so that the pharmacy can load multiple prescriptions in the dispenser at one time. The system is safe and secure for patients to use, said Wang. “The technology is pretty robust in ensuring the right person receives the right medication. Just like picking up in person, it requires two authentication factors before the robot retrieves the medication,” she added.

But don’t expect the machines to replace face-to-face or even mail-order prescription options. The machines are meant to expand options and add convenience for patients, said Wang.

“These ‘ATMs’ can extend pharmacy operations beyond the MTF by acting as an additional remote prescription dispensing window,” said Wang. The pharmacy machine is available 24/7, reducing potential long lines and waiting times. The units will one day have video capabilities, allowing a patient who has a question to speak to a pharmacist via video when the pharmacy is open. “Like how a lot of our lives have evolved during this special time, remote video conferencing is just the way of life in the future,” said Wang.

Patients can pick up prescriptions at their convenience and are no longer bound to the pharmacy’s time, which Wang sees as a big bonus for patients. “It’s more useful now to protect both our patients and staff by decreasing potential exposure risk from face-to-face interactions,” she said, adding the units reduce potential crowding in the pharmacy lobby, especially for elderly and high-risk patients. “This is definitely an example of innovation on the part of the MHS.”

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