Robots in Hospitals

March 2015
Original Source: Wired

Image Source: Aethon Inc.

The newly opened UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay incorporates a fleet of 25 TUG autonomous robots made by Aethon for the transportation of medicines, medical equipment, bedding, food and waste. This is the largest deployment of autonomous carrier robots in hospital facilities in the world.

Salients

  • Autonomous Movement without Collisions - The TUGs have an integrated mapping system to orient themselves wherever they might be on the premises and they communicate with the hospital information systems by means of Wi-Fi. Their 27 infrared and ultrasonic sensors help them to avoid collisions and they use radio waves to open the doors of elevators, which they can only use if they are empty of people. As they move, they make sounds and emit messages to alert humans to their activities.

  • 1,000 Pounds, 1,000 Meals - The TUGs which carry bedlinen can take up to 450 kilograms (1,000 pounds) on each transport unit, and those which distribute meals  can manage 1,000 meals per day.

  • 12 Miles a Day - Each of the robots can cover about 20 kms per day (12 miles). It can recharge itself, and thereby have up to 10 hours of autonomy.

  • Safe Transport of Medications - The TUGs for transporting medicines and clinical material have closed drawers which require a PIN and a biometric fingerprint reading from the doctor or nurse before they can be opened. This opening can only take place at the designated destination of the robot.

  • A 24/7/365 Cloud Command Center - The 24/7/365 support center by Aethon uses algorithms to monitor the status of each TUG in real time. In the case of an alert, the support technician can use a secure VPN connection to connect to the robot and assess its situation by means of its own sensors, and even to take over its control remotely, if necessary.

Insights

  • Preparing Hospitals for Greater Efficiency – Robots’ manufacturers for service in hospitals base much of their sales pitch on the capacity of robots to reduce the costs of inefficiency and, consequently, to free up time for the medical professionals to use in their primary task of attending to the patients. To show the potential ROI (Return on Investment) from this, Aethon has calculated that a large hospital can produce up to 125 errors per day in the dosages of medications. The eradication of such inefficiencies would liberate a total of 25 non-productive hours per day per robot, at an annual cost-saving of close to $600,000. The automation of certain tasks through the use of robots may be part of the solution, but it is not the whole solution. The hospitals will also have to adapt their procedures and work practices to make them more efficient and compatible with the staff’s new robotic colleagues. Moreover, robotic systems in such complex environments as hospitals will have to be flexible enough to allow the agile management of the unexpected and to enable rapid response times to emergencies, when necessary.

  • The Automation of Hospitals - The hospital sector is no stranger to what is apparent across the board in other sectors of the economy: the growing presence of robots. Robotic applications in hospitals are extremely diverse: from surgical robots to robots which offer emotional support and bedside care, through transport robots, robots for the disinfection of rooms, robotic exoskeletons for rehabilitation, robots for the processing of laboratory samples, robots for the preparation of drugs dosages, or robots which are telepresence monitoring devices. The global market for medical robots is estimated to be going to grow to $17.9 billion by 2020. The largest share of these, by far, will be surgical robots, a field which will see new big players emerge over this period. For the rest, any service that can be performed by a machine with more precision and efficiency, and at less cost, will inevitably end up being automated. Robots will undoubtedly become increasingly common in hospitals, sometimes replacing people, for certain tasks, but in other cases supplementing or complementing their skills.

  • The End of the Da Vinci’s Hegemony - The most visible face of present-day medical robotics is the Da Vinci Surgical System made by Intuitive Surgical, for all that it is not properly speaking a robot, but rather a complex system for extending the operative capabilities of the surgeon. With a single product and a turnover of $ 2.265 billion in 2013, Intuitive Surgical is already playing in the major league with the giants of robotics. But the Da Vinci is not beyond controversy, given that it costs between $1.5 and $ 2.5 million. It has been called "a solution in search of a problem." It has yet to show itself to be more effective than laparoscopy and other minimally invasive surgical procedures, and its field of action remains confined for the moment to hysterectomies and postrate removals. The hospitals that took a punt on this new technology are now faced with the need to be themselves marketing agents for the Da Vinci, in an attempt to recoup part of their investment and pay for the maintenance of system. To fill this gap, Titan Medical has announced that it is scheduling its robotic surgical system SPORT (Single Point Orifice Robotic Technology) for release in 2017. Costing less than $1 million, the SPORT is meant for general surgery, which represents some 37% of all operations, as well as for cholecystectomies and operations on ear, nose and throat. These are the first of increasingly versatile and affordable new surgical robotic systems which will appear over the next number of years. The fact that the SPORT will become available so soon may cause hospitals which have been considering acquiring a Da Vinci robot in the short to medium term to rethink their decision.

  • Opportunities for Nanorobotics - Nanorobots have huge potential for application in medical robotics, for which they offer accuracy in their performance of operations along with minimal invasion of the patient. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University are developing “soft” robots with microgrippers that are capable of adhering to specific body tissues. These could be used in extraction procedures for biopsies or for the localized injection of drugs. In another area, researchers from the University of Bristol are studying how swarms of nanorobots could detect cancer cells and carry out non-invasive surgical interventions at cellular level in patients with tumors. For their part, researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) are working with nanorobots guided by magnetism to carry out eye operations on patients with cataracts and glaucoma. These are only a few examples of what these technologies will allow us to do over the next decade, which will bring about a revolution in the field of medicine.