How Robots Help in Medical Care

Robots are increasingly being used in medical care to deliver meals to patients, supplies, and medications — functions orderlies, nurses, and pharmacists often do, or have done in the past. The increasing penetration of robots into hospitals and medical care settings is part of a business strategy, but will it improve patient care?

So far, it looks as if they will. Since robots fulfill a wide variety of functions, though, case studies are one of the most useful ways of looking at what they can do and improvements they can make.

Delivery Robots Can Offset Time-Consuming Burdens…

Wired recently looked at a robot named Tug, which works in hospitals to deliver meals and supplies. Tug is a short, boxy type of robot analogous to those used in hotels to deliver room service.

The offloading of delivery services to Tug allows nurses and other healthcare professionals to spend more time with patients and other members of the healthcare team. Nurses, for example, spend 7% of their time looking for supplies. If Tug can alleviate even part of that, the time saved will allow nurses to become more effective in patient care delivery.

Part of the human cost of Tug, though, is taking care of its needs. While robots like Tug have highly sophisticated navigational systems, they can get stuck. Their lasers can make a three-dimensional map of the hospital’s environment, for example, and they can also do relatively sophisticated procedures, like pressing an elevator button to navigate between floors.

But a large crash cart? Well, Tug may not be able to go around it without human help.

Human help can arrive in the form of a hospital worker giving a friendly assist. Interestingly enough, though, it can also arrive as a set of instructions from an office far, far away. A Pennsylvania-based company named Aethon monitors all its robots at all times. In part, this is in case robots like Tug fall and cannot get up. But it is also in part to alleviate human user fears that the robots won’t be able to navigate safely or efficiently.

As Wired observes, robots like Tug are smaller, indoor versions of autonomous cars, navigating without internal human controls. Aethon supplies internal human controls but does it via a remote location.

Tasks fulfilled by robots free up other healthcare team members.

…While Others Fill Prescriptions

National Public Radio went onsite at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) medical center to observe how a robot fills prescriptions at the pharmacy there.

It does so with high efficiency and accuracy. Whereas handwritten prescriptions needed to be scanned and pills counted into bottles by human hand, digital prescriptions can be accessed by the robot and a robotic arm counts.

It has a 0% error rate, versus 2.8% for humans.

So far, the UCSF robot has worked for pharmacists somewhat like Tug works for nurses and orderlies. It gives them time to do more patient- and healthcare-related labors, such as consulting with other members of the healthcare team.

Pharmacy heads note that no pharmacist has been replaced by the robot, but also observe that they may reduce future hiring.

So robots in healthcare settings aren’t just technology news, they’re here to stay. They free up healthcare professionals to focus on patient care and increase accuracy.

Look for them at a hospital near you.