Public Media for Central Pennsylvania
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rex the Robot is Freeing up Pharmacists

Photo of Rex the Robot at PSU's University Health Center

If you’re a student, retiree, staff or faculty member who’s picked up one of the thousands of prescriptions that Penn State’s University Health Center fills each year, you can probably thank Rex that you got what the doctor ordered. Rex is a robot … and he’s responsible for counting the pills that end up in your pill bottle. WPSU intern Julianne Tarullo visited UHC to find out more about the robot behind the counter.

The prevalence of robots has increased in recent years, but Rex the robot has been helping out behind the counter at UHS for quite some time. According to Jim Gill, the Chief Pharmacist at the student health center on Penn State’s University Park campus, Rex began his ten-hour days at the pharmacy even before Gill joined the team 11 years ago.

“It contains 180 to 200 of the most used medications, so that when we are actually filling the prescription, the machine takes care of all the manual counting and labeling and gets the prescriptions ready,” said Gill.

According to Senior Associate Director at UHS, Doris Guanowsky, Rex began his duties in the pharmacy 15 years ago when the health center purchased the robot for 250,000 dollars.

“We just didn’t have enough room to house all the staff that we needed to fill the demand in the pharmacy,” said Guanowsky. “One of the things we looked at was the automation. By that time the employees were taking up so much of our business, and we wanted to be able to serve them quickly, so we made the investment to buy Rex.”

The pharmacy at UHS fills anywhere from 600 to 1,000 prescriptions a day – 60% of which are filled by Rex. Rex is mainly responsible for filling the vials for the pharmacy’s most in-demand prescriptions, which include antibiotics and blood pressure and cholesterol medications. Rex works from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. - with no lunch break. 

According to Gill, Rex looks like a wall of kitchen cabinets and contains 200 trays holding different medications.

“Each [tray] is labeled with a bar code, and there are three different sized vials depending on how many or how large the pills are that need counted,” said Gill. “There’s a robotic arm with a grasper on it that comes over and grabs the vial. Depending on what we’ve inputted, it goes to the cell, reads the UPC code and starts to count the medication.”

Robotic prescription dispensing systems are becoming more popular in pharmacies in recent years, and Rex is a model generally used in retail pharmacies.

“Because of its large capacity and its ease of use, it ties into many different software systems so that it can be tailored to just about anybody’s operation,” said Gill.

According to Gill, Rex has never made a mistake, and his efficiency has reduced overall pharmacy expenses by eliminating the need for additional pharmacists. Rex also gives the pharmacists the opportunity to take a break from pill counting.

“Rex frees the pharmacists so they can answer patients’ questions,” said Gill. “They could work with an insurance issue if they need to, get on the phone with a doctor, talk with the mother of a student - they’re free to deal with what we consider more important issues.”

With robots like Rex offering so many advantages, it’s not difficult to envision a time when all prescriptions will be filled by bots. But Gill isn’t worried about being replaced.

“They’ve been getting very popular for the past few years, and there really has not been a downturn in the job market,” said Gill. “There are always pharmacists retiring. A lot of the larger companies are continually opening stores or adding stores. I don’t think that with the current pharmacy situation a bot is going to take over anyone’s job anytime soon.”