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George’s Corner

My first “George’s Corner” was published in the July 1984 edition of ComputerTalk for the Pharmacist. That was more than 31 years ago (31 years, six issues per year, equals 186 columns — wow).

The Lockwoods suggested that I find some of the old columns and see what has changed. I found that first one. Things have changed. That column was about the “T-Factor.” It talked about the attraction of computers as toys. How computer purchasers were adults who remembered their childhood electric trains and saw a similar toy factor in these new computers.

There were many more independent pharmacies at the time. The chains had not become as influential as they are today. Besides, chains were afraid of computers. Their lawyers were afraid that the computer might not catch a drug interaction (as advertised) and the chain would get sued. The independents were having trouble getting their Medicaid billings done and welcomed that feature, along with the interaction checking.

But there was still that toy factor. I remember demonstrating our pharmacy system in the mid-seventies to a group of about 30 pharmacists. I was showing them how I would enter the prescription data, push the go button, and then watch as the label, a hard copy of the Rx, and the Medicaid billing form came out of the printer. The reaction of those pharmacists was strange. There was an “ahh” component, a gentle laughter component, and a bit of twisting in their seats. My mind raced. What was going on? Then I realized that I had seen that unique response when a magician made something appear or disappear. They were seeing a magic act.

I quickly rolled up my sleeves and told them this was real.

Times have changed. The toy factor is still there. Now it happens when we buy a cell phone. They are all sophisticated computers that function as phones and cameras and many other things, but the decision about which one to buy has a high toy factor. There are millions of games. For many of them you need to have the right “phone.” So the toy factor is still there, except now it is about our phone’s capabilities.

Today, pharmacy computer decisions are based on function, utility, and price. Boring. Someone needs to introduce a new toy factor.

Sooo Many Other Changes in Those 30 Years

No more paper billings. Thirty years ago any billings had to be on paper that had to be gathered and mailed. And then you waited for weeks to find out if you would get paid and how much. Instant responses to every keystroke. Using the old computers, every now and then you had to wait 15 to 20 seconds for the computer to be ready for the next action — too long to wait, too short to do anything else.

I firmly believe that computers and drones will not take over. They all need us to teach them what to do and fix things that go wrong. We also are needed to provide the ideas and create the gadgets and tools that will move things forward.

Reliable, seldom crash. We used to have disk crashes. The systems that were online would have their lines go down. Sometimes the early hardware or software would just stop working for unknown reasons.

Lower computer prices. Everybody knows that computer prices have gone down. Those early pharmacy computers were expensive to make and service, and therefore expensive for the users.

More data being stored and used. Our 1970s standalone system had a disk drive that weighed 300 pounds, was big, had two 12-inch disks, and had a 10-megabyte capacity. Gigabytes were dreams, and the word terabyte did not exist.

Faster. Today’s systems do so much more and they do it all faster.

So, what’s going to happen in the next 30 years? The only thing for sure is that George will stop writing this column for one reason or another. We can also be sure that technology will undergo huge changes — especially healthcare technology. It’s easy to imagine that someday:

■ Every morning you spit on something sticking out of your phone.

■ Your phone diagnoses your condition and sends a message to some computer in the sky.

■ Within 20 minutes your medications for today are dropped on your front porch (or wherever you are) by a drone.

Crazy? Sure. But that, or something equally crazy, will happen.

On the other hand, I firmly believe that computers and drones will not take over. They all need us to teach them what to do and fix things that go wrong. We also are needed to provide the ideas and create the gadgets and tools that will move things forward.

Most importantly, people need people. We will only take so much guff from a computer. Eventually, it’s people who generate the emotional responses that are such an important part of care. CT

George Pennebaker, Pharm.D., is a consultant and past president of the California Pharmacists Association. The author can be reached at george.pennebaker@sbcglobal.net; 916/501- 6541; and PO Box 25, Esparto, CA 95627.