Pharmacy of the Future is in South Africa

Medicine from pharmacy dispensing units (PDUs): Chronically ill patients in South Africa can get their medication quickly, simply and without stigmatisation.

While online medical consultations are set to be available in Germany by roughly 2020, roll-out of pharmacy dispensing units (PDUs) remains the subject of heated debate. In South Africa, where 20 million people have to manage chronic illnesses and there is a significant shortage of qualified pharmacists, digitalisation of the health sector has already begun: In three densely populated districts of Johannesburg, patients can collect their medication from 16 PDUs located in four shopping centres. Roughly 15,000 people, 70 percent of whom are women, have already taken advantage of this service since spring 2017.

To make digital pharmacies a reality in South Africa, MACH4, a Germany-based provider of robotic pharmacy automation solutions, and Right E-Pharmacy, a subsidiary of the South African NGO Right to Care, entered into a cooperation with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. The project is supported by develoPPP.de, a programme set up by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

Registered patients can retrieve their medication right at the dispensing units, which are also equipped with a video link to call a pharmacist for advice on the dosage and side effects. That service is available in the country’s eleven official languages and on weekends. It takes roughly five minutes to dispense the medication, compared with several hours of waiting time at public health facilities. Patients are issued chip cards that facilitate access to patient and prescription data stored in a cloud system.

The PDUs not only improve access to medication and professional advice, but also the likelihood that patients take their medicine correctly and regularly: Patients receive a text message to remind them of their next pick-up appointment. The system also decreases the likelihood of becoming infected with other diseases in overcrowded waiting rooms, or being stigmatised as an HIV patient.

The PDUs are not at full capacity yet: they could actually serve twice or three times as many patients. And that is a good thing as the number of people using the high-tech pharmacies continues to increase each month.