Monday, August 16, 2010

Pointless Invention

Today I saw what is possibly the most pointless piece of "time-saving" technology ever.

Sainsburys are trialling Prescription Vending Machines. You log in with your fingerprint and/or ID number, put your prescription into the machine, and get your drugs out.

On the face of it, wonderful. I get pretty much the same incredibly common drugs every four weeks and it would save me about twenty minutes a month if I could insert my prescription into a slot with one hand and pick up my tablets with the other.

Then I saw this BBC piece on how it actually works (that link goes to a video piece, I haven't yet found a written article). I'll do a step-by-step description, with what happens when I use the human pharmacy in italic text and the way the machine works in bold.

I go to the pharmacy counter, write the date and sign the prescription form, and hand it to a pharmacy worker (not the pharmacist) who tells me how long it is likely to take. If it's five minutes, I hang around and wait, if it's half an hour they give me a collection ticket and I'll find something else to do and come back later.
I go to the pharmacy vending machine, write the date and sign the prescription form. I mess about for a little while logging into the system (assuming I'm at a height where I can see the screen, and have a level of vision which allows me to see and use a touch-screen interface). Then I put my prescription into a special envelope (assuming there's nothing wrong with my hands)and post it into the little slot. The machine prints off a collection ticket telling me how long I will have to wait.

So far, the machine is taking longer. But what happens next is even better - and it ensures that the wait will never be as short as five minutes. Let's assume my waiting time is 30 minutes and I've wandered off...

The pharmacy assistant places my prescription at the back of a prescriptions box. The pharmacist himself is taking prescriptions from the front and dealing with them one by one. Eventually he gets to mine. He enters my prescriptions into the computer, to make sure none of them clash (this extra layer of checking by a fresh person and a separate computer is why GPs don't tend to give out drugs directly), measures out the drugs, puts them into a paper bag, seals it with a label with my name and NHS number printed on it, and places it onto a shelf which I believe is organised alphabetically for last name.
The pharmacist at the back of the machine - yes, the machine is dependent on a human being at the back of it - retrieves my special envelope, opens it, and takes out my prescription. He enters my prescriptions into the computer (is this sounding familiar yet?), measures out the drugs, puts them into a plastic baggie with my name and NHS number printed on it, and places this into the machine, which may or may not be organised alphabetically, who knows?

Yes, in true mechanical Turk style, there's still an actual qualified pharmacist doing all the actual work. The machine is just a glorified drop-box. So far the processing system is no more automated than it's been for the last ten years or so. They've just added an extra layer of ID-checking that's going to make it difficult for shorter people, people using wheelchairs, people who have trouble with their hands, people who can't see or use touch-screens, and people who are too ill to come out to collect prescriptions and have to send a friend or assistant. I bet the thing talks as well, just to exclude those with impaired hearing/auditory processing too - they might as well try and get the full house.

Anyway, half an hour or more passes and I come back to the pharmacy...

I confirm my name to the pharmacy assistant. They retrieve my bag of drugs from the shelf of prepared prescriptions, ask me to confirm my address and date of birth, and hand it over. They will advise me of any clashes (for instance that antibiotics reduce the effectiveness of the contraceptive pill) and then off I go.
I log in to the system again, assuming as before that I am able to do such a thing. The machine retrieves my bag of drugs from the high-tech shelf inside, and pushes it into the collection chamber with a little note telling me of any clashes. I open the collection chamber, retrieve my tablets, and off I go.

So it takes longer and is no more reliable than the current system, even assuming that there are no mechanical or software issues with the machines - self-checkout, anyone? Nevertheless their claim that it will enable people to skip the queues is probably correct, as the sick or disabled people unable to use the machine will still be queuing at the normal pharmacy. It's not even as if they'll save that much on staffing costs, as the machine still requires a pharmacist to do the bulk of the work and presumably an operator to empty, fill and maintain the thing.

I love technology but I really cannot see the point of this one.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Credit profiling and benefit claimants

I'm sure everyone has by now seen the articles about David Cameron's latest crackdown on benefits claimants, with plans to pay private companies to rummage through claimants' accounts. I'd refer to his crackdown "on benefits cheats" but that's not really true - benefit fraud, particularly for disability benefit, is at less than 1%, which means that for every one fraudster he cracks down on, 99 genuine claimants, already dealing with poverty, sickness, disability, job loss and whatever other issues have led to them legitimately being on benefits, are being terrified and harassed. He's attacking claimants.

More money is lost through administrative error than through fraud. So it's interesting that Mr Cameron's plan of attack involves rummaging through the personal affairs of claimants rather than training his staff at the DWP and Tax Credits units to make fewer mistakes. Surely staff training is cheaper than investigating millions of claimants?

According to the Citizen's Advice Bureau, there's about £17bn of benefit that is unclaimed because people either don't know they're entitled to it, or can't deal with the application/appeals processes. Perhaps Mr Cameron is aiming to increase the unclaimed benefit with his campaign of "if you claim anything, we're going to have our grubby little paws all over your bank accounts and make your life a misery."

I'm very relieved to not be on means-tested benefits any more (I get DLA but that's for disability-related expenses such as mobility equipment, and not dependent on earnings or work status), as I almost certainly would have had a credit profile with red flags. The most regular things I bought on my credit/debit cards while living alone on IB and HB/CTB were:

- grocery shopping for more than one person and including baby stuff like clothing, food and nappies. (While I lived in Lowestoft, friends who drove would give me a lift to the supermarket. In order to take advantage of multi-buy offers and "spend £100 and get a voucher for cheaper petrol" offers, I'd pay for all our combined shopping in one go on my credit card, and then we'd split it up and sort out the cash when we got home.)

- lots of petrol, plus various car repairs and accessories. (I can't drive, but I often bought petrol for friends who drove me places and wouldn't accept any cash, and for Pip I also covered minor repairs on his car because without it I lost a lot of mobility).

I'd also occasionally buy larger or more expensive items for friends who didn't have the credit card/internet access combination at their disposal. They'd give me the cash, I'd order their (whatever), and it would be delivered to my address - because I was in most of the time anyway, and unlike the post office, they could collect from my flat outside working hours.

So I probably credit-profiled as a car owner/driver who shopped for a household of two or three adults and one or two young children and who had a reasonably high amount of disposable income for personal electronics. Which would be rather at odds with my claim to be a single disabled person, in a tiny one-bedroom flat, too ill to drive, no kids, and a low income.

It's just as well I'm not on IB any more otherwise they would have wasted a *lot* of time investigating me. But these sorts of informal money-saving measures are common amongst people on low incomes or with limited resources.

The other thing that tickled me was the idea that they will be looking for people spending money on gardening or DIY. You show me a person with a long-term medical condition and I'll show you a person who has been told by at least three medical professionals that they should try a spot of gardening by way of occupational therapy.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Geek/crip crossover

I just know that a lot of the readers of this blog will appreciate today's XKCD, even if they don't already follow it.

I'm not listening to you.  I mean, what does a SQUIRREL know about mental health?
Description: A person saying "The sleep deprivation madness worsens. Things seem unreal. Am I even awake? Maybe I'm dreaming."
The person approaches a tree with a squirrel climbing on it. The person says "I'm pretty sure I'm hallucinating this tree. But what if I'm hallucinating that I'm hallucinating and I'm actually totally sane?"
The squirrel replies "Listen. I wouldn't worry about that."

XKCD usually adds an extra comment or punchline as alt-text. Today's is "I'm not listening to you. I mean, what does a SQUIRREL know about mental health?"

I loved this strip on so many levels. It's a perfect depiction of the kind of existential worry that you only encounter when you're sleep-deprived and/or drugged up to the eyeballs, when your grip on reality is slightly fuzzed and you start to ponder the nature of reality... after all, if I am hallucinating, I will be the last person to know that my hallucinations aren't real because they'll originate from my own brain! Maybe I'm hallucinating Steve, or hallucinating the internet...

(That's what usually settles it for me. I could not possibly hallucinate even half the stuff I see online.)

(edit for picture width, although I'm still not sure I've done it right.)

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


Problem: In pain.
Solution: Take painkillers.

Problem: Cannot take painkillers on empty stomach.
Solution: Eat something.

Problem: Cannot prepare meal, even microwave meal, while in this kind of pain.
Solution: Eat something small that does not require preparation - a couple of biscuits, a bag of crisps, a slice of bread.

Problem: That is not a balanced diet, and if you don't eat the 'proper' food in the fridge, it will go off and you will be wasting money and killing the planet and what about the Starving Children In Africa.
Solution: Eat 'proper' meals as well, including meat/protein, fruit/vegetables, dairy products, and rice/pasta/potatoes.

Problem: Eating more calories than I burn. Cannot afford to buy whole new wardrobe.
Solution: Cut out snacking between meals.

Problem: Cannot take painkillers on empty stomach.

It annoys me that after six years I still get stuck in this loop on such a regular basis.