They look similar to ATMs, work like ATMs but do not dispense cash. Instead, the machines established by Right to Care, at shopping centres in Alexandra, Soweto and Diepsloot churn out chronic medication for patients stricken with diabetes, cholesterol, nerve ailments, high blood pressure, HIV/Aids and etc.

The drug dispensing units were established at sites in Gauteng and the Free State in March last year. The ATMs are fitted with generators which means that the words ‘out of order’, do not apply here. Health workers in Gauteng and the Free State have to authorise the use of the ATMs by patients.

Medical tests must show that the patients have responded well to the medication given at state hospitals and clinics, before they are given the green light to have their medication dispensed by the ATMs. While the ATMs have been around at certain places in Gauteng and the Free State for about 16 months, it was reported that just a fraction of patients regularly used the machines. Right to Care said the low figure may be because the idea has not cottoned on with health workers who have to provide patients with referral letters.

“There are many stable patients but fewer than we can manage are being decanted,” said Fanie Hendriksz, managing director of Right Pharmacy, which handles technology-based pharmacy solutions for Right to Care. On average, ATM users got their medication within 15 minutes as opposed to hours of waiting at hospitals and clinics. Only five percent of ATM patients reported experiencing stock shortages. It takes about a week to replenish stock in the machines.

A 2019 study published in the journal PLOS ONE uncovered about 1 449 instances in which HIV or TB drugs were not available at public sector facilities. In a quarter of these cases, patients were either left with incomplete treatment or nothing at all.