This was in the early 1980s, in South Africa, and my dad was an early adopter. Back then almost none of the country's other pharmacies were computerized. The idea that a pharmacy, of all places, would ever need a computer seemed bizarre. Computers were for calculations, and pharmacists didn't calculate. My dad, who was then just a few years into his practice, spent his days counting pills, mixing compounds, and counseling patients who looked to the local pharmacist as a kind of always-on-call pseudo-doctor. All these tasks were beyond the capabilities of early computers—which also tended to be unreliable, difficult to use, and expensive. "Some of the other pharmacists thought I was crazy," my dad recalls. "Why spend so much money on this?"
My father, the pharmacist My father, the pharmacist.
But pharmacy was changing. More and more medicines required little intervention by pharmacists—they didn't need to be mixed, diluted, or otherwise prepared. These medications just needed to be counted, bottled, labeled, dispensed to the customer, and then billed to insurance companies. The tasks that now consumed a pharmacist's day—customer management, inventory control, and invoicing—weren't taught in pharmacy school. They were, however, perfectly suited to a new breed of software being developed to manage retail businesses.
The computer that my dad installed was primitive, but it streamlined the most-onerous processes in his pharmacy. Before the computer, my dad spent three hours every day on billing, pricing, patient management, and all the associated paperwork. The new machine handled all of that. In an instant, he had three free hours per day.
Within a few years, every pharmacy in South Africa used computers to manage its operations. My family moved to the United States in the late 1980s and my dad started working at an American chain pharmacy. The technology he encountered there was even more amazing. By the 1990s, most American pharmacies were equipped with electronic connections to doctors' offices and insurance companies, allowing them to receive prescriptions and check a patient's coverage. The typical retail pharmacy also has systems to warn against potential medical errors—it flags drug interactions, for instance, and warns if a prescription doesn't fit a patient's demographic characteristics.