MINNEAPOLIS — It looks like an oversized cash machine. But instead of spitting out greenbacks, it dispenses prescription medicine.
For Michael Powell, who recently slipped his debit card into one of the machines at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, Minn., the on-site convenience can't be topped.
"It took two minutes, maybe," he said. "If I go to my drugstore, I'll wait at least a half hour."
The Eden Prairie, Minn., company InstyMeds is bringing vending machine convenience to the world of medicine. The number of the machines has doubled in the past three years, with 200 installed in 33 states and the District of Columbia, mostly in emergency rooms and urgent care centers.
Advantages include a reduced risk of giving a patient the wrong drug, according to the company. But pharmacists also point to limitations, such as the machine's inability to counsel patients.
"It's not quite as seamless as going to a cash machine and saying, 'Give me $200,' " said Bruce Thompson, pharmacy services director for Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.
The machines dispense up to 100 of the most commonly prescribed drugs, including pain relievers, antibiotics, asthma inhalers, treatments for bee stings and flu treatments.
Patients tap out a number from their doctor, answer a few questions and pay. A robot triple-checks the request against a barcode, sticks on an instruction label and drops the medicine out a chute.
"It's like using an ATM," said Powell, 57, of New Brighton, Minn., a repeat user of the InstyMeds dispenser. "It guides you through it, takes cash and debit cards, and has a brain. It knows I'm on Medicare and what I have to pay for my co-pay."
A phone attached to the machine is staffed 24 hours a day by insurance specialists in Eden Prairie who can answer questions, help patients work through co-payment issues or even direct them to the nearest pharmacy.
Some pharmacists have not been so quick to embrace the InstyMeds concept. They worry that patients need face-to-face counseling, especially those taking multiple drugs that might interact.
Thompson of Hennepin County Medical Center said the machines are great for rural areas where patients might need to drive long distances to get to a pharmacy. But he said it can be cumbersome for some doctors to fill out the form InstyMeds uses for prescriptions. And if a patient happens to be trying to buy the medication at a time when the insurance company is doing a backup or is offline, they could be stuck with paying for the entire cost up front.