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Don Waugh, CEO of PharmaTrust Inc., teaches Deb Matthews, Ontario Minister of Health, how to use the PharmaTrust MedCentre prescription dispensing machine at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre Holland Orthopaedic and Arthritic Centre. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/Jennifer Roberts for the Globe and Mail)
Don Waugh, CEO of PharmaTrust Inc., teaches Deb Matthews, Ontario Minister of Health, how to use the PharmaTrust MedCentre prescription dispensing machine at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre Holland Orthopaedic and Arthritic Centre. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/Jennifer Roberts for the Globe and Mail)

Automation

A vending machine for pharmaceuticals Add to ...

Deb Matthews, Ontario's Minister of Health, fills a prescription for a box of Smarties at a futuristic vending machine.

A pharmacist beside her doesn't blink an eye.

"Do you have any health advice that goes with these?" Ms. Matthews asks.

"Don't eat them all at once," advises the pharmacist.

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Ms. Matthews stands in the jam-packed lobby of Sunnybrook's Holland Orthopaedic and Arthritic Centre in downtown Toronto. She's here to see PharmaTrust's MedCentre machine, which is being launched in Ontario.

MedCentre is a cross between a high-tech vending machine and an ABM. But instead of candy or cash, it dispenses pharmaceutical drugs (except in the case of the Smarties for Ms. Matthews).

"What we're celebrating is an Ontario-born and -raised innovation that's going to improve access to care for people who require medication," Ms. Matthews says. "We're proud that this innovation will be spreading far beyond the boundaries of Ontario."

Oakville, Ont.-based PCA Services Inc., which operates under the PharmaTrust banner, is a five-year-old company that has developed several drug-dispensing machines. It's poised to release the third version, which can store and dispense 2,500 types of drugs. As with prior iterations, clients speak to a pharmacist working in a PharmaCentre office via video-phone before receiving their meds. The machine will accept their prescription, their drug plan benefits card and their cash or credit card.

Recently, Ontario passed regulations allowing for remote-pharmacy dispensing. That effectively legalizes PharmaTrust's video-teleconferencing model, rather than requiring the patient to be in the same location.

PharmaTrust is now signing contracts for machines with hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and remote communities. While laws vary across Canada, it's seeking to expand across the country as well as into the United States and the United Kingdom.

As the machine rolls out, PharmaTrust is creating its next device - called MedHome, designed to help people with their meds while at home. A portable machine that can connect to a pharmacist via tele-video sits in the patient's home. It alerts the patient when it's time to take medication, and dispenses pills out of a slot. Patients must then confirm they've taken the drug.

PharmaTrust co-founder and chief executive officer Don Waugh says the device was conceived partially because of his own experience.

"A friend of mine, who is 77, was in the hospital eight times last year, in emergency, because of the way that drugs were being delivered to him," Mr. Waugh says. "He literally didn't have any support around that."

One-quarter of emergency room visits are drug related, and 70 per cent of those are preventable, he adds. The top cause of drug-related visits is a patient not properly following the instructions on their medications. The second is adverse drug reactions; the third is inappropriate prescribing.

MedHome is "basically a medication management device that includes monitoring the patient," Mr. Waugh says.

Medication is loaded into the home system by a PharmaTrust employee, with up to a month's supply. The system, which communicates with outside professionals using an Internet connection, will alert a patient's caregiver or a central monitoring centre if medication is not taken properly.

In January, federal Minister of Industry Tony Clement announced that the National Research Council of Canada would contribute up to $300,000 in funding to PharmaTrust for the software and engineering development required for MedHome.

As PharmaTrust is working to carve out a niche in the drug dispensing business, it's also looking to stay ahead of the competition. It recently opened offices in the U.K. and Chicago, and it has more than 20 patents pending.

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