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Getting Too Comfortable With Technology

Harold E. Cohen, RPh
Editor-in-Chief

8/19/2010
US Pharm. 2010;35:1.
 
I would be overstepping my bounds to say that I was a “techie” in the classic sense. Am I an early adopter of new technology? Yes. Do I use new technology regularly to simplify my life? Yes. But do I live and breathe technology like a true techie? No. I clearly remember using a slide rule (look it up) for college physics and a mechanical adding machine for my statistics course. Handheld LED electronic calculators were just being developed by Texas Instruments but were still way too expensive for a struggling college student, and the few computers that were available filled up an entire room and took hours to run a somewhat difficult equation. And, of course, there were no cell phones, and all of our home phones were corded; wireless was still a few years away. During my first few years in retail pharmacy, we still used a typewriter to print each prescription label and kept handwritten patient records. We used good professional judgment and what we learned in pharmacy school to predict drug interactions. I had calluses on my finger from holding and writing with a pen all day; nobody even knew what carpal tunnel syndrome was then.

I’m not saying that technology hasn’t exponentially improved the safety and accuracy of dispensing prescriptions, because it obviously has; but life behind the prescription counter was certainly different—and in many ways simpler—when I started to practice retail pharmacy. But to be fair, the number of pharmaceutical products available was considerably less back then, and many of these medications were not as sophisticated as some of the drugs being dispensed today. Computerization has certainly made keeping patient records easier, and built-in drug databases catch millions of potentially serious drug interactions over the course of a career. But even as technology continues to evolve, the basic premise of computerization has not changed—it is still “garbage in, garbage out.”  And as if human error weren’t enough to worry about, hackers are constantly finding new ways to “data mine” and pull confidential information from our computer systems. I never had to worry about someone coming in and stealing information from my box of index cards with patient information written on them.

And while all this gee-whiz technology is great, I, like millions of other people who use electronic information resources every day, am guilty of blindly trusting all the technology that surrounds and consumes us. Retailers are arguably most guilty of this. How many times have you asked a clerk or store manager about an obvious pricing error on an item, only to get the answer, “Well, that’s the price the computer is giving me.” It simply never occurs to them that someone in their organization might have entered the wrong information into the scanning system. While no one is likely to lose their life over an incorrectly priced piece of clothing or furniture, it obviously can be quite a different story when error exists in a pharmacy setting.

Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians must never get complacent about the technology they use every day when filling prescriptions. While computer hardware may not make mistakes, the people who program them often do. With the number of electronic prescriptions on the rise, pharmacists are oftentimes relying on nonprofessional employees in a doctor’s office to push the right buttons to transmit an error-free prescription. E-prescribing technology is a very useful tool, but in the wrong hands it could prove to be fatal. In the final analysis, there isn’t a piece of technology on the market today that can take the place of good judgment and a sharp mind behind the prescription counter. Getting too comfortable with technology can have disastrous effects.
 
To comment on this column, email editor@uspharmacist.com or visit Harold’s blog at www.PharmQD.com/blog.
 
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