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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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Meet the accountant of the future

The accountant of the future will need a new set of skills, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, as he meets both the local users and the global creators of Xero accounting software

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Buchule and Sivenathi Sibaca get a highrise view of London. Pic by Arthur Goldstuck

Meet Buchule and Sivenathi Sibaca. They are not only partners in marriage, but also in a thriving accounting business. Buchule and Sivenathi are, respectively, chief executive officer and chief financial officer of SMTAX, which focuses on tax and accounting services for small businesses in the Western Cape, but includes the likes of Absa and Old Mutual among its clients. It employs 18 people and has 4,500 individual and business customers.

That’s not what makes the outfit remarkable. The startling feature of this business is that it has been structured to be a model accounting firm of the next decade. Even more remarkable is the fact that the couple both hail from rural areas where thoughts of the future tend to be about survival rather than blazing new trails.

Last week, they made their first trip out of the country, to attend Xerocon London 2019. This 2-day conference, hosted by the world’s fastest growing accounting software maker, Xero, attracted more than 3,000 delegates from the United Kingdom, Europe Middle East and Africa. A total of 57 Xero partners and users, mostly from accounting practices or suppliers to accountants, made the trek from South Africa.

“It was really about seeing how other accountants on other continents operate in terms of how they think and where their headspace is at,” Buchule told us during Xerocon. “Also, being our first time out of the country, it was to see the culture of other small businesses outside of South Africa. 

“London’s quite different in that regard, but it’s been a really a great learning curve, and we were pleasantly surprised to find elements that look like South Africa, where we can say, at least you’re doing something right. The banking environment is quite unique, as it’s been a really good learning curve in terms of where banking might go to in the future of South Africa if they follow the same trend.”

Buchule comes from the “dusty streets” of Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, while Sivenathi grew up on a farm in a deep rural area near Mthatha.

“I had no idea about technology or the rest of the world or how it could impact the economy in general,” she said. The two met at the University of Cape Town, where she was studying to be an actuary, and he completed a Masters degree in tax. She decided to put actuarial science behind her, however, when the opportunity arose to join Buchule’s business. But her skills helped transform the business.

Said Buchule: “When Sivenathi came on board we did the modeling of the business, and we said that in order to in order to automate the whole bookkeeping journey, we would need to turn closer and closer towards ‘x’, meaning fully automated bookkeeping. We looked at the journey of how long it will it take for us to get to time ‘x’. And then we said, OK, once we get there, what then?

“It was a big realization that when we do get to time ‘x’, the most important thing will be the human touch. That will be the differentiator. So we then spent our time developing that.”

Visit the next page to read more about the Xerocon 2019 event.

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Takealot reveals startling numbers for Black Friday

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Takealot has revealed startling numbers for expected bumper sales this holiday season, beginning next week, and peaking with Black Friday.

South Africa’s leading ecommerce group expects to ship at least one order every second, with roughly 10,000 boxes leaving their warehouses every hour, this shopping season. 

Black Friday was first introduced to South Africa by Takealot in 2012, and has since become an important day in South Africa’s annual retail calendar. It has been a record-breaker for both retailers in the Takealot Group: Takealot and Superbalist. Takealot’s Black Friday gross merchandise value (GMV) grew 125% from 2017 to 2018, with orders up 127%. Superbalist’s Black Friday GMV has grown on average around 50%. This year, CEO Kim Reid is anticipating the biggest Black Friday yet, a culmination of months of tech and operational business-wide focus to prepare for increased predicted traffic and shopper volumes.

ABSA bank estimates that two out of three South Africans participated in Black Friday sales in 2018. And FNB reports in 2018, Black Friday transaction volumes grew by 16% compared with 2017 and anticipates a 15% increase in transactions over the sales period in 2019. 

Successfully meeting this massive growth in orders has been a key focus for the Takealot Group. CEO Kim Reid says throughout the year they have been working to scale operations across multiple areas within the business. “After expanding our Johannesburg distribution centre (DC), our warehouse storage space now stands at 75 000m2. We house over 3.7 million items at any given time, and have opened 47 Takealot Pickup Points in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Gauteng, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Limpopo, Free State and Mpumalanga for order collections and returns, with more to open in the coming months.” 

Takealot Delivery Team delivers to more South African homes than any other courier company in the country. On a monthly basis, they carry out over 1.6-million deliveries,  with this number expected to increase to over 2-million during the shopping season. More than 4,500 drivers currently deliver for the Takealot Delivery Team; a number that is growing every month. The Takealot group anticipates they’ll travel over 4,000 000km from Black Friday until 24 December. “To put that in context, it is the equivalent of circumnavigating the globe over 100 times” says Reid.

Takealot.com’s Blue Dot Sale is a five day sale period which starts on Black Friday (29 November) and sees a range of new deals throughout the weekend as well as on Cyber Monday (2 December) and Takealot Tuesday (3 December), with up to 60% off thousands of items. For the first time, takealot.com will also be giving their shoppers early access to some of its Black Friday deals, starting on 24 November. Fresh new app-only deals will be added daily. 

The Superbalist Showdown will run from 29 November to 3 December, with up to 70% off more than 15 000+ items. Superbalist shoppers will also have early access to Black Friday deals on selected days throughout November, with Superbalist’s Black Friday Spoilers – 24 hours to shop deals that they say won’t be beaten on Black Friday. 

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