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Take two pills and see me in the future

High-tech is changing the way pharmacies operate – and how customers get served, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Rowena the robot arm in action at Morningside Dispensary. Pic by Arthur Goldstuck

It looks like an ordinary pharmacy in an ordinary Johannesburg shopping mall. But behind the scenes at the Morningside Dispensary, a revolution is underway. It may not be getting the attention that politicians get when they talk of the fourth industrial revolution, but it is a real and practical example of what emerging technologies make possible in everyday life.

For the customers of this pharmacy are being served by a robot. Even when they don’t realise it, and are talking to a human pharmacist, the efficiency with which they are being served is made possible by a robot.

It doesn’t have a face or a cute voice: it’s a mere set of robot arms that manages the stocking and dispensing of medicines. The staff have given it a name, though: Rowena, after its creator, Rowa Technologies.

When a customer walks in, the pharmacist keys in the name of the medicine on a prescription, and Rowa is able to find it instantly – among 20,000 boxes of medicine. That means the pharmacist can carry on speaking to the customer while Rowena does the heavy lifting – or rather light lifting – and delivers the box of medicine into a basket behind the staff member. This means, in short, that the robot allows the human to be more human.

It is a perfect example of robots enhancing and augmenting human activity, rather than replacing human roles. The customer is served more quickly, even as the pharmacist engages more deeply with the person across the counter. That makes the business as a whole more efficient, but also more human.  Rowena also restocks the shelves, assisted by a conveyor belt and barcode scanner.

In the industry, they call Rowena an ADU, for automated dispensing unit. The first one on South Africa was installed in 2012 at the Pretoria Urology Hospital, now legendary for using robots to assist surgeons in operations.

“ADUs like the Rowa have been around since 1996,” says Jared Paiva, sales manager of DNA Logic, Rowa distributors in South Africa. “The first unit was installed in Germany, and have been demonstrated in South Africa since 2008.”

He points out that robots are symbolic of digital technology making its way into pharmacies, with tools ranging from touch screens to ATM pick-up units.

“All of these are tools for business to improve service, offer value and convenience to customers and create efficiencies for staff. ADUs solve many problems experienced in a pharmacy, such as staff shortages, long waiting times, stock theft, stock shrinkages, space problems.”

While Europe and rest of the world took to the technology immediately, with over 10,000 Rowa machines sold in 33 countries, he says, it is still a tough sell in South Africa, with 18 units installed.

“That’s a good number considering how tough the economy has been. All 18 of our customers have seen the benefit of a Rowa almost immediately and have wished they adopted the technology earlier.”

It is no surprise that service providers are emerging to take advantage of these technologies, trends and opportunities. Right ePharmacy, a “strategic solution provider for the dispensing, distribution and collection of medicine” has introduced South Africa to the PDU, an ATM using electronic and robotic technology to dispense medication. It is managed from the cloud, using Amazon Web Services (AWS) to take advantage of new capabilities and capacity as they are needed.

“The cloud-based information system hosts and manages patient data and links the patient to a remote pharmacist via an audio-video link,” says Fanie Hendrieksz, managing director of Right ePharmacy. “This virtual consultation between the patient and the pharmacist is called tele-pharmacy. 

“Through AWS cloud, we were also able to implement a SMS system to keep users informed about their next collection dates and sends out reminders. This promotes patient retention and assists the early identification and intervention for patients at risk of non-adherence. The system results in positive clinical outcomes and effective patient data management.”

PDU collection sites can be placed in communities at central, easily accessible locations, such as shopping centres on main transport routes. They can be kept open for extended hours, including weekends and public holidays, and patients can quickly and conveniently collect their repeat prescriptions. 

Right ePharmacy isn’t just a great commercial idea. Its partners and funders include local and international agencies and teams committed to the prevention care and treatment of HIV, TB, cervical cancer, and associated diseases.

Says Hendrieksz: “Right ePharmacy is the centre of excellence for its parent company, Right to Care, spearheading disruptive innovation and enhancing differentiated models of pharmaceutical care in South Africa. We source, customise and implement the latest technology and systems to address key issues for better healthcare outcomes.

“The use of this pharmacy automation technology enhances delivery and access to medication services, eases overcrowding at facilities with high patient volumes, reduces patient waiting times and has the potential to improve medicine adherence and retention in care. Wider economic benefits are also achieved through minimising time off from work for employed PDU users.”

In effect, Right ePharmacy is bringing to the public sector the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution that companies like DNA Logic offer the private sector.

“PDUs are primarily used to dispense chronic medication to patients, but they can be customised and utilised for specific programmes such as universal test and treat or malaria campaigns,” says Hendrieksz. “Right ePharmacy is the ideal partner for any form of key health initiatives such as treatment access scale-up. The solutions also help to further address some of the structural issues in the public health sector, like inadequate skills and human resources.

That’s not very different from the challenge facing commercial pharmacies, although on a much greater scale. The solutions are also not very different.

“We pioneered the customisation and installation of the first Pharmacy Automation Robotics system in the public sector. Currently we have automated three hospital dispensaries with robotics in overburdened facilities.”

Clearly, the pharmacy of the future will be a case study in how robots come to the rescue of humans, rather than replacing them.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

Click here to read about how Rowena can soon come to a pharmacy near you.

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TikTok takes on COVID-19

The fastest growing social media platform in the world has also become an epicenter of public education about the coronavirus, attracting more than 30-billion views, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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The young have been getting a bad rap for wanting to party on while COVID-19 sends the world into lockdown. But a different movie is playing itself out on the social platform that is growing fastest among teenagers: TikTok.

Awareness campaigns by TikTok itself, collaboration with the International Red Cross, and spontaneous videos made by TikTok creators have combined into a barrage of information, education, awareness and social consciousness around the coronavirus.

Both globally and in South Africa, TikTok’s COVID-19 campaigns have gone viral.

The local #HayiCorona challenge, designed to remind people not to touch their face and wash hands regularly, has passed 1.5-million views. The TikTok collaboration with the International Red Cross, the #WashingHands challenge, has passed 12.6-million views.

One of the best-known participants in these challenges is the past year’s icon of South African talent, the Ndlovu Youth Choir, took up the global challenge with a 20-second hand-washing video. It put together a performance that brings tremendous energy to what can be a clichéd message, and ends with a punt for the Department of Health’s WhatsApp information service. The video can be viewed below.

@ndlovuyouthchoir

Our community has limited access to running water. Follow these instructions on how to safely wash your hands using a bucket. ##coronavirus##washinghands

♬ original sound – ndlovuyouthchoir

“On a global scale, TikTok also partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure that, while creators are still having fun and expressing themselves on the platform, they stay informed with COVID-19 information coming from a reliable source,” a TikTok spokesperson told us. “Through the partnership, the WHO has created an informational page on TikTok that offers information to curb the spread of the coronavirus as well as dispelling myths.”

The page can be viewed at https://vm.tiktok.com/GHTEGf

TikTok has hosted a number of livestreams with WHO experts, attracting users from more than 70 countries, tuning in for live question and answer sessions. It has also introduced labels on coronavirus-related videos, to point users to trusted information. Resources are also offered directly in the app and in a dedicated COVID-19 section of TikTok’s Safety Center, at https://www.tiktok.com/safety/resources/covid-19.

If users simply want to explore videos on the topic, they can search via the #coronavirus hashtag, or click on https://vm.tiktok.com/swKbn4. The hashtag has had an astonishing 33.8-billion views, indicating the scale of activity and interest around the topic on the platform.

Read more on the next page about how South Africans have embraced the campaign.

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On World Backup Day: backup, backup, backup

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It was World Backup Day yesterday, 31 March, at a time when business continuity is threatened as never before. That makes calls for protecting email and defending against ransomware all the more urgent.

The global coronavirus pandemic has brought into stark relief many organisations’ lack of business continuity plans and policies. With more than two billion people around the globe in forced lockdown in wide-ranging government efforts to stem the tide of infections, an unprecedented number of employees are working remotely.

This interruption to the normal way of work is precisely what an effective and resilient business continuity strategy should plan for, says Heino Gevers, cybersecurity specialist at Mimecast

“Companies need uninterrupted access to critical business applications during times of disruption, including safe and secure web and email access for workers that are now operating outside the normal perimeters of the organisation,” he says. “In addition, comprehensive backup and archiving solutions should be ready to restore access to critical business applications should there be any unplanned downtime to ensure continuity until the crisis passes.”

According to Gevers, the current global crisis is likely to push business continuity up the list of priorities for many organisations that have been disrupted by the effects of the coronavirus.

“Organisations are facing new challenges to their productivity; for example in terms of technical support. If a remote user is infected with malware or ransomware, how does the IT team restore that device or do any remediation without being able to physically access it?”

Gevers advises that organisations implement tools that enhances the data protection capabilities of commonly-used tools such as Office365 and can leverage archived data to provide quick recovery of email data in the event of accidental loss, malicious attacks or technical failure. 

“As adoption of cloud-based business applications grow in the wake of forced lockdowns around the globe, companies need to ensure they have the tools to recover in any situation,” he says. “This includes a data management strategy that combines archiving, backup and data protection capabilities to allow for quick restoration of critical systems and applications in the event of disruption.”

Jasmit Sagoo, head of technology at Veritas for the United Kingdom and Ireland, warns that this is a golden age for cybercriminals looking for ransomware opportunities.

“As the global cost of ransomware continues to grow, this World Backup Day, Veritas is saying: ‘don’t pay up, back up!’,” he says. “Ransomware is said to generate an estimated annual revenue of $1 billion a year, and companies who are not consistent in backing up their data are allowing criminals to line their pockets.

“Ransomware attacks exist only because some businesses can’t survive unless the hackers give them back their data.  So, the key to survival is removing that reliance and being able to regain access to data, without engaging with the cybercriminals.  The best way to do that is with a sound backup strategy.

“Sagoo advises organisations to create isolated, offline backup copies of their data to keep it out of reach of any attackers.  They then need to proactively monitor and restrict backup credentials, while running backups frequently to shrink the risk of potential data loss. Businesses should also test and retest their ransomware defences regularly.

“Ransomware strikes without warning and it doesn’t discriminate between its targets – it can happen to any organisation, large or small. Despite their best efforts, most companies will fall to at least one attack. What distinguishes one victim from another is the ability to bounce back, which ultimately depends on its backup strategy.

“When ransomware hits, organisations that aren’t prepared often feel helpless to do anything other than to submit to their attacker’s demands.   That’s why we’re urging all businesses to use World Backup Day as a catalyst to get ahead of the situation and get their data protected.”

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