NCPA Executive Update

NCPA Executive Update delivers insights on legislative, regulatory, policy, and industry developments from NCPA CEO B. Douglas Hoey, Pharmacist, MBA, to NCPA members and pharmacy leaders every other Friday.

Man vs. Machine: 'It's Elementary My Dear Watson' | NCPA Executive Update | April 8, 2016

by NCPA | Apr 08, 2016

Dear Colleague,

Doug Hoey

Ken Jennings knows a lot of stuff and he uses pharmacists as an example of a job that is in danger of being replaced by artificial intelligence.

Jennings is the computer engineer who won a record 74 straight matches (as a point of reference the second longest winning streak is 20 games) and over $1 million in 2004 on the brainy quiz show "Jeopardy." He then went on to take on IBM's question answering computer system "Watson" and got smoked.

In an interview on a local Washington, D.C., radio station last month, Jennings was asked about the potential for computers like Watson taking over human jobs. Machines doing jobs more efficiently and more cheaply than a human may sound good unless you're a paralegal or pharmacist or other job that could get replaced, Jennings said.

He elaborated more in a TED talk in 2013:

"And I remember standing there behind the podium as I could hear that little insectoid thumb clicking. It had a robot thumb that was clicking on the buzzer. And you could hear that little tick, tick, tick, tick. And I remember thinking, this is it. I felt obsolete. I felt like a Detroit factory worker of the '80s seeing a robot that could now do his job on the assembly line. I felt like quiz show contestant was now the first job that had become obsolete under this new regime of thinking computers. And it hasn't been the last. If you watch the news, you'll see occasionally—and I see this all the time—that pharmacists now, there's a machine that can fill prescriptions automatically without actually needing a human pharmacist."

Jennings has proven he is a brilliant individual but in this case he's thinking about pharmacists as dispensing machines which is an antiquated view of the role of pharmacists. If that was the only value we provided to health care, frankly, he's right that we could be in a vulnerable place to someday be replaced. But, yes, while pharmacists do make sure that patients get the right medication, we do so much more than that.

The medication is really just the means to the end. The endpoint is for the patient to have improved health. Over time the expectation for pharmacists to be a health care manager—using medication as the centerpiece of our work—has grown.

This is really just a flashback to not that long ago when pharmacists were often nicknamed "Doc" because patients looked to them to handle minor ailments and help manage major conditions as well as accurately provide medications. Going back even farther in time, I recently was in Colonial Williamsburg, founded in 1699.

Even back then, the Apothecary was a prominent business on the main street providing services such as "medical treatment, prescribed medicine, performed surgery, and served as man-midwives."

The value-based payment reform that is affecting all of health care is resulting in greater expectations for pharmacists. In many ways, the expectations from the health care system are services that pharmacists have been providing for years. For example, some health systems are scratching their head trying to solve who could assist them with helping to make sure patients get and are taking their medications. Independent pharmacies have been offering same day home delivery for decades. Other health plans need help with special packaging for patients to improve adherence. Again, independent pharmacists have been offering this solution for decades.

Hopefully, if Alex Trebek ever states, "The most accessible health care provider who is making a difference managing outpatient care", Ken Jennings will now answer (in the form of a question), "Who is my local community pharmacist?" I bet Watson would get it right.


Doug Hoey