More hospitals are investing in robots to do the jobs once held almost exclusively by health care professionals like nurses, doctors, and others. But do we trust them?
Imagine lying in your hospital bed, recovering from surgery, only to see a robot glide in, ready to top up your pain meds. You watch as its smooth, silicone-coated hand extends a tiny paper cup holding your pill.
Fact or fiction?
Fact, at least in some form in some US hospitals, such as the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center where 25 robots (one of whom is named Willie McTuggie) are gainfully employed performing duties once performed almost exclusively by humans, such as nurses, maintenance workers and cafeteria staff.
These robots are loaded with artificial intelligence and a work ethic that’s hard to beat. They aren't unionized and they don’t take coffee breaks.
Willie, for example, can open doors, sense when an elevator is about to open and avoid collisions with doctors on rounds, patients stretching their legs or visitors searching for the right rooms.
Just another day in paradise for this gainfully employed TUG robot, manufactured by Aethon.
"It does displace certain roles, but we can put that headcount into other service roles," Pamela Hudson, executive director of clinical systems at UCSF told Bloomberg recently.
TUG robots do the heavy lifting and leave the really important tasks to humans.
According to Aethon, they are “the only provider of an autonomous mobile robot which is integrated with delivery tracking software, creating a platform to automate a hospital’s internal logistics and supply processes – or intralogistics."
The company goes on to say that these “often overlooked” internal supply functions account for 85 percent of all goods that move through a hospital. Can you say potential for efficiency?
Aethon has robots installed in over 140 hospitals and says it can improve the performance of multiple hospital departments.
As a patient and consumer, I checked out the touted benefits of hospital robots on the Aethon website and must admit I found the benefits of TUG quite appealing.
- Put an end to late and missing doses! MedEx from Aethon is a real-time medication delivery tracking software system that keeps medications from falling into the ‘black hole’. Aethon’s TUG autonomous mobile robot can also automatically deliver medications securely. It helps reduce turnaround time and focuses your staff on patient care.
- Anyone who has moved linens know the loads are big, heavy and awkward. Perfect job for the TUG! Eliminating transportation tasks allows staff to more quickly clean and turn over rooms. The TUG can deliver clean linen stored in covered racks and return soiled linen in tall plastic linen bins.
- Meals are an important facet of patient satisfaction. Efficient delivery of meals is a major concern for food service directors in both room service and traditional service models. The TUG automatically transports dining carts from the kitchen to patient units so your staff can spend more time attending to the needs of the patient.
- Moving specimens to the lab for analysis is an easy job for TUG. Using the integrated secure door cart, the TUG can deliver all sorts of specimens. This keeps your staff close to the patient to improve care.
Mind you, not everyone is impressed with robots doing rounds.
In his post on Wired, This Incredible Robot is Saving Lives and I Hate it, Matt Simon reports on both sides of the digital divide.
The whole circus is, in a word, bewildering. The staff still seems unsure what to make of Tug. Reactions I witness range from daaawing over its cuteness (the gentle bleeping, the slow-going, the politeness of stopping before pancaking people) to an unconvincingly restrained horror that the machines had suddenly become sentient. I grew up in Silicon Valley and write for WIRED and even I’m confused about it. The whole thing is just weird. It’s really weird. And I’m not sure I like it much.– Matt Simon, Wired
Simon’s post gives a tremendous inside view of TUG and his robo-pals at work, from loading food in the cafeteria to creating a new kind of staff training -- in robot etiquette. For all of its efficiency and disruptive potential, TUG and his clan, says Simon, are just plain creepy.
For as cute as Tug can be—and it pains me to say this—it’s also a bit creepy. There’s something unsettling about a robot that’s responsible for human lives tooling around with minimal commands.
Simon found the dispensing robots known as Wall-E and Eve especially disturbing during his recent PR tour at UCSF.
We’re in the hospital’s pharmacy now, meeting Wall-E and Eve. You can tell the difference because behind each hangs a plush toy of their namesake. They’ll hang there until the robots get their new outfits (pending approval from Disney’s lawyers, of course). A pharmacist gathers some drugs, scans their codes into a touchscreen next to the robots, and chooses the destination for each. Walking over to Wall-E, she enters a code on a number pad, then places her thumb on a biometric reader to unlock the machine. A small screen on the robot tells her which medication goes in which numbered drawer, and she proceeds to pop each open and place the drug inside. With a tap of the green button atop Wall-E, the robot is off.
Simon’s Wired rant is definitely worth a read, especially if you’re in an industry that’s thinking of swapping humans for robots. I’m kind of with Simon and I’m kind of not. I get that robots are creepy, especially in a hospital setting where we expect the TLC factor to be off the charts (and I mean, really, how much TLC can a robot actually give).
Like it or not, robots are the way of the future. Resistance is futile.
In a post by my colleague Shiva Gopal Reddy, he notes that, “the global healthcare robotic systems market—which includes surgical robots, rehabilitation robotics, assistive robotics, application robotics, non-invasive radio surgery robots, pharmacy robots and others—is set to expand to $3.764 billion by 2018 from a base of $1.781 billion in 2013, growing at a CAGR of 16.1%.”
As I always say to my daughter when she rants about how technology is putting people out of jobs, the printing press put calligraphers out of jobs…computers put typewriter manufacturers out of business…and smart phones are putting home phones out of business, too. I'm sure my parents were mortified when 33s squeezed out their 78s (yes I'm THAT old). And let's not even talk about 8-tracks.
Such is the price of progress.
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.