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Meet the newest health care robots

By Andrew Rebhan

March 19, 2018

    Rapid technological advancement in robotics—sensors, computers, natural vision processing, etc.—and hardware improvement continue to open up new possibilities for robotics in health care.

    For instance, Boston Dynamics recently released a video of a robot that can jump over boxes and perform a near-perfect backflip. While you might not see (or need) a robot performing backflips in the hospital anytime soon, the video does show just how far robotics have come in terms of their development.

    The picture for adoption

    Research organizations have started to paint an optimistic picture for adoption. In a recent report, IDC Health Insights predicts that by 2020, a quarter of hospitals with 200+ beds will use robots to handle time-consuming tasks, reduce labor, and prevent errors. In a separate report, Boston Consulting Group projects that the global market for robotics will reach $87B by 2025, up from $15B in 2010.

    Robotics is not entirely new to health care—the da Vinci Surgical System has been used for years to assist with minimally invasive surgery. However, hospitals and health systems are broadening the scope of applications.

    Sample Use Cases

    • Toyota built its Human Support Robot to help patients perform everyday tasks around the home or hospital, like opening doors or retrieving objects. The robot has video calling functionality, and operates remotely via a touchscreen tablet. In 2015, Toyota announced the creation of the Toyota Research Institute to develop artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, with a core focus on robot helpers for around the home.
    • At Brown University, researchers from Brown's Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative (HCRI) are working with the toy manufacturer Hasbro to add basic AI functionality to robotic pets. This project assists seniors who suffer from mild dementia, and. It aims to improve medication adherence, alleviate loneliness or social isolation, and address other aspects of mental health. The multi-year project is supported by a $1M grant from the National Science Foundation.
    • UCSF's Mission Bay facility has been using TUG robots by the vendor Aethon for a few years now. These robots can travel hundreds of miles per day using a laser-based navigation system to autonomously deliver drugs, meals, supplies, or cart away medical waste—resulting in substantial time savings for staff.
    • Ochsner Medical Center is deploying Xenex's LightStrike robots to combat germs and prevent hospital-acquired infections. The robots kill germs and superbugs using with high-intensity ultraviolet light (UV). According to the vendor's website, Xenex devices are deployed in roughly 400 U.S. hospitals, allowing the disinfection of as many as 64 rooms per day with a single robot.

    While many robotic applications are still rather in nascent stages, the field (and AI in general) is increasingly gaining traction in health care. Is your team interested? Here are some considerations to get you started.

    Don't let the adoption wave pass you by: It's easy to brush off robotics as an unrealistic investment, but early movers will develop competitive advantages in the long term—even if they are simply brainstorming possible applications for the future. Planning now will save some headaches later, as integrating robots into a hospital's workflow and infrastructure can take longer than expected (in addition to any piloting phases).

    ... But have a plan: Robots can help organizations to cut costs, reduce risk, and enhance productivity, but hospitals need to deploy them strategically. For now, robots typically serve a narrow focus, such as patient companionship, supply chain, material transport, or surgery. Until the industry develops robots that can serve multiple functions, you won't gain optimal value from your investment without explicitly defining your needs first.

    Prepare your workforce: A common struggle among health care organizations is the need to find and retain top talent while simultaneously reducing labor costs. It is a growing reality that—much like in other industries—some hospitals will start to eliminate low-skill jobs and replace them with robots. However, the bulk of robotic activity will supplement your staff, alleviating them of mundane or even dangerous jobs so that your employees can focus on patients and other higher-level tasks. Keep in mind that with greater adoption, you may need to invest in workforce training to properly operate and maintain these robots.


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