Tavis Coburn

Humans are not good at delivering drugs. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists and pharmacy techs can mix pills up, provide too many or too few, or fail to dispense them quickly enough. In some cases, controlled substances disappear from hospitals, bound for the black market. Medication errors lead to some 1.5 million “preventable drug-related injuries” every year, at a cost of $3.5 billion, a report by the National Academies found. The stakes are highest in trauma units, where lifesaving drugs must be given within the “golden hour”–when medications are most effective.

Medical-equipment manufacturers have spent decades experimenting with automated pill dispensing and tracking (in addition to things like using face recognition, putting chips on pills, printing pills to order) and in 2002, Aethon, a health-care-efficiency company, introduced the Tug robot, which can navigate bustling hospital corridors.

The autonomous rovers are the size of a large pizza box, have a built-in scanning laser and map of the hospital for navigation. A drug cabinet sits on top of the Tug, and each drawer can be opened only when an authorized nurse brushes his or her thumb across a biometric scanner. There are no signatures and no paperwork; a swipe of a patient’s ID card ensures that the right drugs go to the right person.

One of the Tug’s first testers was Marc Summerfield, the pharmacy director of the University of Maryland Medical Center. Summerfield oversees 120 pharmacy technicians and 80 pharmacists, and keeps track of what happens in 757 beds. He spends most of his time trying to improve the speed and efficiency of what’s called the medication cycle. “The doctor writes an order,” he explains, “it needs to get recognized by the nurse; then it goes to the pharmacy, where the pharmacist reviews it, then it goes to the lab, where a technician fills it, then it goes in a bin, then it sits and waits for delivery.”

With two Tugs, Summerfield saw the medication cycle in his trauma unit drop from 74 minutes to 30. The Tugs are also better suited to distributing controlled substances, like morphine. “Robots are reliable,” he says, “and humans are humans. We’re reducing the potential for temptation.”

Since 2002, Summerfield has brought on six more Tugs. Some 400 others are operating in 130 hospitals nationwide. Spencer Allen, the chief technology officer at Aethon, says that $100,000 worth of medication deliveries went missing every year in hospitals that are now using Tugs before they brought in the robots. “Without the human element,” he says, “we’ve got it down to zero.”