The Department of Health in South Africa has recognised that one of the reasons for the failure to achieve ‘Health for All’ as envisioned by the Alma Ata Declaration is the failure to address health systems effectively. In line with their intention to prioritise access to medicines and vaccines the department launched self-service medicine-dispensing machines at the 21st International AIDS Conference in July 2016.

This pilot project uses a Pharmacy Dispensing Unit which is a self-service machine where patients will collect their medication in the same way they would withdraw money from an ATM. This pilot project is currently being tested at the Themba Lethu clinic at the Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg.

How it works

  • You register for the service at the clinic.
  • You will then receive a smart card with a PIN.
  • To obtain your medicine you insert your smart card in the Unit, enter your PIN and select the medicine you need from your preloaded prescription list.
  • You are also able to communicate with a pharmacist using the Unit’s built-in video conferencing function.


The use of these Units will help:

  • Shorten waiting times.
  • Improve the quality of prescriptions.
  • Improve dispensing of accurate medicines.
  • Optimise the use of space in a pharmacy.

What are the risks?

  • Medical data is one of the most sought after types of information on the illegal market and needs to be adequately protected using data security measures and safeguards.
  • Users of the system must take precautions against fraud and theft of their smart cards and PINs (similar to credit cards) to prevent unauthorised access to the medication.
  • Regular testing and auditing of the technology must be conducted to identify system vulnerabilities early on and to take steps to mitigate against the risks materialising.

See our previous medical technology blog for more information on other initiatives in South Africa.