People in Ontario will soon be able to buy prescription drugs through an ATM-like self-serve machine now that Bill 179 has been passed in the Ontario legislature.

PCA Services Inc. of Oakville, Ont., plans to roll out hundreds of kiosks across the province in places like malls and grocery stores once regulations are in place, which the company hopes will be within three months.

The kiosks, which have been in use in a handful of Ontario hospitals for two years, will likely become as indispensable as bank machines and cellphones, particularly as governments look for ways to cut health-care costs, said Peter Suma, president of PCA Services, which developed the machine.

"It will be like a cellphone. It will free you from locational dependence," Suma said in an interview with CBC News.

He used an example of going to a grocery store late at night, only to find the pharmacy section is closed. In the future, a customer will just head over to a PharmaTrust machine, as they're called, feed the doctor's prescription through a slot and pick up the phone for a video conference with a pharmacist.

Upon payment, the pharmacist releases the actual drug in the machine and the interaction is complete.

"How can you go wrong when you're bringing a 24-hour, multilingual pharmacy service to a town that doesn't have a pharmacy," said Suma.

Suma said he is aware of criticism surrounding the machines. People are concerned about drugs being handed out willy-nilly and some pharmacists worry patients won't feel comfortable about asking important private questions.

"Forget the concept that it's a vending machine," said Suma. "It's more like a telephone to a pharmacist that also has a really fast courier. It's all very safe. It's all very manageable. It's really about the connection to the pharmacist."

The Canadian Pharmacists Association has not taken a position one way or another, said executive director Jeff Poston.

However, Poston questioned whether the full range of savings will be realized after the cost of servicing, maintaining and refilling hundreds of kiosk machines is factored in.

Then there's the important issue of human contact.

"There's no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Face-to-face interaction allows the pharmacist to judge things about the patient and it allows the patient to ask questions they might not have [in a remote video situation]," said Poston.

PCA has already made inroads in other countries and is set to roll out a handful of trial sites in the United Kingdom early in the new year, with the potential to sell thousands more there in the coming years, said Suma.

Suma is hoping the Ontario regulations will come down before the British launch, noting that it would be a shame for a Canadian company not to be able to launch a Canadian-developed technology on home turf first.

Corrections

  • PCA will roll out a handful of trial drug kiosks in the U.K. in the new year, not thousands of them as the original story said.
    Dec 03, 2009 7:56 AM ET