Collect&Go smart lockers are taking off. So much so that somewhere in South Africa a patient will make the 450,000th collection in next two months.
Over the last three years, 149,789 patients have used the technology to avoid the usual long queues at many of the country’s medical facilities.
It is an uptake that has been phenomenal, spurred on in part by the Covid 19 pandemic.
Right ePharmacy introduced the Collect&Go smart lockers in 2020, two years later 335544 chronic prescriptions had been dispensed through the lockers. “And when we opened our eyes with Covid being part of it, we were suddenly sitting at 100 sites through South Africa,” explains Right ePharmacy’s Managing Director, Fanie Hendriksz. Right ePharmacy is owned by health NGO Right to Care. These sites so far can be found in Mpumalanga, Gauteng, Limpopo, Free State and the Western Cape.
During the Covid pandemic patients were quick to realise that the lockers allowed them to avoid crowds while still being able to collect their chronic medication. And, while the 450000 collection is just around the corner and the number of users is growing, the developers are still working to improve the system continuously. They turned to the patients to see what works best, using a community radio station network to ask what they wanted.
“We asked them, and they said they didn’t like the stigma, ” explains Hendriksz.
Having listened to this, the plan now is to move from just offering chronic medication to other healthcare products often associated with stigma, including contraceptives, HIV and pregnancy tests.
The team also found that most users of the smart lockers preferred having to access them at healthcare facilities. These sites are the most convenient for them.
How the smart lockers work is that patients first have to register at their local clinic.
Once registered, the health care facility will issue the patient their first two-month supply of medication and will provide them with a date of when they need to pick up their next medicine collection.
Once the medicine arrives and is available for collection, the patient receives a one-time pin via their cell phone.
The one-time pin is then keyed into the touch screen, and the locker opens in a process that takes just a few minutes. The lockers are temperature-controlled and have a power backup.
One of the advantages of the smart locker system, Hendriksz stresses, is that it moves healthcare providers away from having to dispense medicines and deliver monthly chronic medication.
“We have more nurses giving out medicines than pharmacists. And you think they like giving out medicines? No, they want to do primary health care.”
So far, three African countries, Botswana, Eswatini and Lesotho, have already shown interest in the technology and are involved with pilot studies.
The Collect&Go lockers were not the Right ePharmacy’s first venture into smart dispensing.
In 2018, they launched their Pharmacy Dispensing Unit, which they described as an ATM for medication.
The set-up included Skype-like audio-visual interaction between patients and telepharmacists and robotic technology.
The first of these was rolled out in Alexandra, in Gauteng.
The Pharmacy Dispensing Units were able to cut down queuing time, but there was a setback when many of these units were destroyed during the July riots of 2021. A disadvantage that these medicine ATMs have is that they are expensive.
Looking back, Hendriksz admits that the medicine ATMs were a little high-end for South Africa.
“We started with a Mercedes, but we should have started with a Taz,” he explains. “It was a niche application but not suitable for low-cost drugs.”
Still, various industries and countries are interested in the medicine ATMs.
Two sites still operate in South Africa, in the Free State. Also, interest has been shown from the Isle of Man, the US and Germany.
Soon, the smart lockers could also find work within other areas of the Health care system. The plan is to have them in operating theatres, where they could hold emergency medicines that can be accessed long after pharmacies have closed for the night.
But with the growing strain on South Africa’s healthcare system, there is an increasing demand for smart interventions.
“With our high burdens of HIV/TB and now comorbidities like hypertension and diabetes, we need to get patients out of facilities,” says Hendriksz.
“It has been an interesting journey, and we will continue to learn,” he adds.