Ms Evelyn Soh used to spend every day picking medicine, packing it and then dispensing it to polyclinic patients.
But since the Bukit Batok Polyclinic where she works started using a machine to do most of the sorting and packing, she has the time to learn a new skill - patient counselling.
The pharmacy technician, who has a diploma in pharmaceutical sciences, now teaches asthmatic patients how to use an inhaler properly, and educates heart patients on which food to avoid while taking medication.
"It is more fulfilling," she said. "In the past, we didn't have much time with patients. Now I can talk to them for up to 15 minutes, and they have the chance to ask more questions."
She attended two six-month part-time training courses before taking over the counselling sessions which were previously conducted by pharmacists.
Her colleague Alice Chin has also been freed up to head a team and train staff from other National Healthcare Group (NHG) polyclinics on how to use the machine packer.
She also manages inventory, as the automated packer needs to be properly stocked and the drugs barcoded. Based on the code, the machine picks the correct drug that has been prescribed for the patient.
By the end of this year, all nine NHG polyclinics will be using these automated packers, which reduce the workload for pharmacy technicians and cut down on human error.
Several public hospital pharmacies have also introduced similar machines.
This is just one of several high-tech initiatives being adopted at both public and private healthcare institutions to raise productivity and cope with the increasing manpower squeeze.
At Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH), automated ground vehicles (AGVs) have taken over the mundane task of delivering food and medical reports to wards.
The machines use the backlanes and are rarely seen by patients. It used to take 10 people to make these deliveries, doing about 300 trips a day.
Switching to automated beds has also made it easier to move them. It used to take four porters for each of the 150 bed transfers a day, as a bed weighs between 260kg and 360kg, but now just two can do the job.
A KTPH spokesman said the ordering of meals has also gone high-tech, saving 47 man-hours a day. Instead of nurses going around asking patients what they want for breakfast, lunch and dinner, writing it down and passing on the information to the kitchen, all meal requests are now recorded on an iPad linked directly to the kitchen.
Meanwhile, the four Parkway Hospitals - Gleneagles, Mount Elizabeth, Mount Elizabeth Novena and Parkway East - switched to an electronic signature system in September last year that not only saves reams of paper, but also requires five fewer people in dealing with admissions and consent.
Instead of filling in paper forms for staff to then input into computers, patients now do it electronically. This also reduces errors.
Like KTPH, two Parkway hospitals have introduced electronic meal ordering which takes into account allergies and therapeutic needs so patients cannot pick a meal that they should not have.
A spokesman said Gleneagles saves 33 man-hours each day, and Mount Elizabeth, 18.
At Singapore General Hospital, radio-frequency identity technology has made tracking and counting items a breeze.
It is used, for instance, on the 4,000 curtains - 100 of which need to be laundered and replaced every day.
Previously, 16 housekeeping staff members had to count and record the serial number on each curtain during inventory tracking. Now a special tag on each curtain is scanned and recorded in real-time.
Housekeeper Soh Siang Chuan said: "It's very easy to use, very fast and the system updates right away so we can see the information immediately."
A different tracking device for surgical supplies that must be sterilised - as many as 28,000 items a month - has resulted in monthly savings of almost 2,000 man-hours.
At the National University Hospital, the use of disposable bedpans has saved 2,100 man-hours a month for nurses, and another 675 man-hours in cleaning the machines used to sanitise them. That is besides the savings on water and electricity The wards smell better too.
Tan Tock Seng Hospital now has electronic tablets that automatically capture patients' vital-sign readings at their bedside. Nurses no longer have to write them down and input the data into the computer later.
With older workers in mind, the hospital has also replaced its old 120kg wooden trolleys used to deliver medical supplies to wards with motorised scooters which pull three carts.
Not only does this reduce delivery time by half with the scooters carrying twice as much each trip, but the workers also no longer suffer from muscle aches.
The system, which reduced the amount of work by more than 400 man-hours a month, has a zero accident rate. The old trolleys averaged 20 collisions a month.
Said senior staff keeper Chan Chee Chioong, 53: "I used to go home with my knees and back hurting. Now, it doesn't even feel like I'm working."
Before the change, he planned to stop work in a few years' time as he did not think he could carry on. But he no longer thinks of retiring so soon.
This article was first published on April 19, 2015.
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