Business & Tech

At Dana-Farber, a robot roams the halls to deliver meds

Margot Chamberlain paused in playing her harp so that Lucy, the pharmacy robot, can pass by at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Margot Chamberlain paused in playing her harp so that Lucy, the pharmacy robot, can pass by at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The robot is being developed to take drugs to patients.

It’s an unusual sight in the halls of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: Alongside doctors, nurses, and patients, a robot about the size of a washing machine quietly glides through the hospital, a bright light marking its presence.

Dana-Farber executives have high hopes for “Lucy,” one of the newest technologies in use at Boston’s best-known cancer center. Lucy is being developed to deliver prescription drugs directly to patients while they sit in infusion rooms receiving chemotherapy — a treatment that can take many hours. If the system works, it will save patients the time and trouble of having to stand in line to pick up their prescriptions at a pharmacy after an already long and draining day of treatment.

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“We want Lucy to be able to improve the patient’s experience while they’re here all day,” said Sylvia Bartel, vice president of pharmacy at Dana-Farber. “Their last stop is usually coming to the outpatient pharmacy and picking up a prescription. They finish their chemotherapy, they have to wait in a line, so we felt like there had to be a way for us to efficiently deliver the [medications] using technology.”

Dana-Farber began testing the technology in 2013, after getting a phone call from executives at Vecna Technologies, the Cambridge-based company that developed the robot and was looking to expand its health care business. The Boston cancer center is one of just a few hospitals in the world using the machine.

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Lucy is equipped with a touchscreen, a scanner, and compartments for stocking drugs. There is no attempt to give it human features, other than a voice only used occasionally. For now, the robot doesn’t interact with patients, only with hospital staff. It moves drugs around the Longwood area hospital, making about a dozen trips a day, using Wi-Fi-connected software to open doors and use service elevators.

Lucy isn’t glitch-free. It has ended up on the wrong floor before. On one recent afternoon, its movements were halting. Another day, it was out of service because of a connectivity problem.

Even so, Carlos Verrier, business operations manager in Dana-Farber’s pharmacy, said Lucy has helped make the pharmacy more productive. The hospital pharmacy is a busy place, processing some 400 scrips a day.

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“It’s really allowing the staff to do more of what they’re trained to do... and not having to take them away to do a delivery,” Verrier said. “They spend more time on clinical aspects of their job than on delivering medication.”

Deborah Theobald, Vecna’s chief executive, said there’s a lot of potential for using such robots to move sensitive items around a hospital. Robots can move potent, expensive drugs around a building more safely and securely than humans, she said. Their every move can be easily tracked.

Vecna’s QC Bot costs roughly $150,000. Theobald acknowledged that hospital executives may need some persuading before they’re ready to give it a try.

“There’s an education process to get them over the hump and see the [return on investment],” she said. “People really appreciate robots once you get over the education hurdle. People don’t want to go back.”

Anne Tonachel, a former patient and current volunteer at Dana-Farber, has seen Lucy moving around the halls and quickly become a fan.

Tonachel is an ovarian cancer survivor who vividly remembers the pain of receiving chemotherapy treatment for many hours at a time. The treatments left her feeling too sick to pick up prescriptions from the pharmacy. Tonachel said she would have loved to skip that step by having a robot deliver prescriptions directly to her.

“No one would mind having Lucy show up at their bed or chair side,” she said. “In fact, her arrival might add a bit of interest to the day and bring a few smiles.”

Lisa Zhou worked in the Dana-Farber pharmacy with Lucy.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Lisa Zhou worked in the Dana-Farber pharmacy with Lucy.

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.
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