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Kaiser Permanente’s pharmacy fulfillment center in Renton, Wash. can process around 20,000 prescriptions in an 8-hour period. (GeekWire Photos / Taylor Soper)

Automation technology is helping fill prescription orders and diagnose patient specimens much faster and safer than ever before.

As part of our GeekWire on the Road project last week in Renton, Wash., we had a chance to go behind-the-scenes inside Kaiser Permanente’s high-tech laboratory and pharmacy at its new facilities that opened in the Seattle suburb just over a year ago.

Kaiser Permanente Washington has approximately 3,000 people here, making it one of Renton’s largest employers in this city’s growing healthcare cluster that also includes Providence St. Joseph Health and UW Medicine/Valley Medical Center.

Automation has changed how fulfillment warehouses operate across a variety of industries, including healthcare. Kaiser Permanente, which is both an insurer and care provider with more than 710,170 members across Washington, can process around 20,000 prescriptions in an 8-hour period inside its pharmacy warehouse, where computers, sensors, conveyor belts, gears, and a ton of other tech helps route medications to Kaiser Permanente facilities across the state and to patients via its mail-order system.

Orders are increasingly submitted without a human involved — about half are done via Kaiser Permanente’s online services, including its mobile app, while another 25 percent are done through an automated phone line.

Around two-thirds of prescriptions are filled using automation technology. Kaiser Permanente installed its first automated filling machine in 1996 and has upgraded it twice since then, improving the efficiency and safety each time. Workers are still involved with the process, helping perform quality checks and ensuring the operation runs smoothly.

Heather Robertson, director for pharmacy centralized services, said innovation happens not only inside the warehouse but out of it — for example, Kaiser Permanente is currently testing new rapid medication delivery services.

“We’re always looking for things to make it faster,” she said.

There is plenty of attention and investment going toward speeding up the delivery of medicine to patients. Amazon earlier this year paid a reported $1 billion to acquire PillPack, an online pharmacy that ships pre-packaged doses of medication straight to customers’ doors.

Heather Robertson, director for pharmacy centralized services.

A short walk from the pharmacy fulfillment center is a 25,000 square-foot laboratory that can process up to 6,000 blood, urine, tissue, and other patient specimens from throughout Kaiser Permanente Washington’s network per day.

The lab features a 175-foot Beckman Coulter Power Express Automation System that moves specimen bottles along a mini assembly line and connects to other eight other testing instruments built by companies such as Abbott, Bio-Rad, Diasorin, and Stago.

The system has helped Kaiser Permanente decrease the number of human steps required to process a single sample by 80 percent. The bottles are all equipped with RFID chips for tracking purposes.

Barbara Robinett, core lab manager at Kaiser Permanente’s laboratory in Renton, Wash.

Barbara Robinett, core lab manager and a 48-year healthcare veteran, said the technology reduces the chances of error, contamination, or injury.

“We’re saving hours and saving people’s hands and arms,” she said. However, Robinett added that “you need humans to review the work.”

“You need an interpretation of the results,” she said.

McKinsey & Co. study that found up to 30 percent of U.S. workers may see their jobs disrupted in the next dozen years due to automation. The fast-growing healthcare industry may be insulated from some of that, given the nature of the work. One Seattle startup, NextStep, is helping people who have been displaced by advances in artificial intelligence and automation learn new skills and land jobs in healthcare.

Be sure to check out all of GeekWire’s coverage from Renton here.

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