Robots in the hospital setting are in the limelight following the unveiling of an unprecedented fleet at the newly-opened UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay in San Francisco.
While autonomous "Tugs" are utilized at more than 140 hospitals across the US, this fleet is reported to be the largest—not to mention most high-profile—fleet of free-roaming hospital robots in the world. Their job is to increase hospital efficiency and reduce injuries to hospital staff by handling the movement of materials around the massive 800,000-square-foot, 289-bed facility. They'll be moving everything from food, to medical supplies, to bio-hazardous waste, and more. When they aren't on deliveries they park in small charging bays.
Unlike human healthcare workers, these robots—which some compare in appearance to the fictional R2-D2—can work almost 24/7, with just two scheduled to be off-duty at a time. The hospital estimates the robot fleet will travel a total of 300 miles per day, saving hospital workers significant time and physical labor.
In addition to serving logistical functions, however, these robots also provide the intangible benefit of adding to a hospital's public perception as being cutting-edge. At UCSF Mission Bay, employees are decorating the robots to make them even more of a highlight to patients; the pediatric wards reportedly have their tugs dressed up as cable cars.
The maker of the Tug robots, Aethon, touts one of their top-five benefits as, "Enhances the High-Tech Hospital."
The benefits of the fleet
Brian Herriot, director of Mission Bay Operations Planning, discussed what he sees as the fleet's most important impacts in an email with Healthcare Dive.
"The 'importance' of our fleet, I believe, has to do with the breadth of use cases that we've been able to incorporate, transporting across the spectrum from medical waste, to medications, and everything in-between," Herriot says. "This is the broadest implementation that I'm aware of."
He adds that the fleet's ability to maintain scheduled deliveries and pickups is a huge benefit. "This is a launching-off point for us to continue to optimize/refine/streamline our operations while giving them a rhythm that customers (e.g. Nursing) appreciate."
For example, he says, "Knowing when that particular scope/surgical instruments delivery is coming every day helps everyone. Reducing variation helps us cut out waste and bring the costs of delivering care down overall."
Of course, reducing workplace injuries is also a top priority. "Pushing 800 lb. soiled linen carts is bound to lead to injury," Herriot says. "Putting this activity 'on the back' of a robot will help our employees stay healthy."
The fleet is managed almost like real personnel. Each Tug is assigned to a specific department, such as housecleaning or janitorial. That department's staff then "owns" and operates its assigned robots, only calling for help from IT if there's a problem.
For the sake of security, any robots that transport sensitive items, such as blood samples, are equipped with a combination lock to avoid theft. Access to pharmaceuticals via the robots requires an authorized hospital staffer to provide their fingerprint.
In UCSF Mission Bay's case, the cutting-edge appeal likely goes a particularly long way towards ensuring patient satisfaction given the region's culture of high-tech innovation. What remains to be seen is whether such high visibility will contribute toward any increased trend, or even demand, for robot-assisted healthcare.