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Robots fill the pill bill; a sexy new neighbor

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By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 3, 2002


I could watch Chip and Dale for hours.

No, not the Disney chipmunks. I'm talking about the robots working in the PharmaCare Center at MacDill Air Force Base. The one-armed electric robots, housed inside eight-sided cubicles, whir as they spin and rotate, picking up bottles, putting on labels and filling them with pills from the array of dispensers. Stuffed replicas of the Chip and Dale chipmunks sit atop the cubicles.

They seem almost human, but from most accounts, they're not very temperamental.

Chip and Dale are the backbone of an elaborate and efficient system that helps the base fill 3,000 to 4,000 prescriptions a day. That's a staggering number when you consider your average neighborhood drug store fills about 200 a day.

The 6th Medical Group under the MacDill-based 6th Air Mobility Wing has a $39-million budget, and $25-million is spent on prescriptions. The amount would be far greater if not for the efficiency of the pharmacy.

The pharmacy serves active duty and retired military personnel as well as their dependants. Given the area's large population of retirees and northern visitors, PharmaCare has filled prescriptions for folks from every state in the nation as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Hence the need for Chip and Dale, named after former base wing commander Brig. Gen. Chip Diehl. The robots are the stars, but they have plenty of support personnel: seven pharmacists, 45 technicians and 80 volunteers who log up to 3,000 hours a month bagging prescriptions and providing goodies, like blueberry muffins, for the workers. (Not for Chip and Dale, of course. They'd probably prefer some WD40.)

"The value they have to us cannot be underestimated," said Maj. Debra Bayley, PharmaCare manager.

The pharmacists and technicians are part of the quality assurances in place to reduce mistakes. Whenever I mention the robots, people get this funny look, like Chip and Dale are giving Prozac to people who just want Claritan. Trust me, the safety measures are numerous, beginning with a paperless system that scans written prescriptions into a computer.

Chip and Dale place their filled bottles on a conveyer belt leading to a checking station, where a person uses a computer to ensure the fill matches the written prescription and an image of the drug. According to 6th Medical Group commander Col. Alan Newton, the rate of mistakes at PharmaCare is far below the industry standard.

With folks from Johns Hopkins and Harvard coming to learn about the system, PharmaCare is one of the jewels of the crown that is MacDill.

* * *

The new Dubliner Pub at 2307 Azeele has a couple of interesting promotions. On Wednesdays, they will have an international deejay spinning European tunes on the outdoor deck.

And on Sundays, they'll have an old-style Irish jam where people can bring their own instruments and join the house band in performances.

Or if you like, you can get down with the traditional Irish dancers.

* * *

My younger sister visited for Thanksgiving and implored me to awaken my 8- and 10-year-old sons to the realities of the world by letting them watch the news.

My younger son, trying to help ol' dad out, blurted out, "I watch Extra."

Thanks, son.

* * *

I'm not suggesting the city's single women all flock to Pasco County, but it's worth nothing that one of the sexiest men alive is living at Saddlebrook.

Tennis star James Blake, 22, was named the sexiest athlete by People. The 6-foot-1 Blake has risen to No. 28 since leaving Harvard to turn pro, and lives with his 25-year-old brother. I guess if you go looking for Blake, you might want to take a friend.

That's all I'm saying.

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