In 2020, frontline health care workers and hospital staff bravely entered the eye of an unprecedented public-health storm. Around the world, people are celebrating these essential workers for their herculean efforts to keep people healthy and save lives in the face of unknown personal danger. But what if there were ways to decrease the risks these unsung heroes faced?
Enterprising companies are using robots to limit employee and patient exposure to the dangerous coronavirus. To assist with the deluge of new patients struck with the virus, robots were deployed from China to the United States to perform critical hospital staff tasks and stop the infection’s spread. These smart devices have proved helpful during the pandemic, but will healthcare providers keep using them after the virus is gone?
A Light Touch
Hospitals are where people go to get well. Health care workers who work in them, however, must take precautions to protect their wellbeing. Enter Xenex, which was established in 2008 to make hospitals safer for patients and professionals.
“Xenex was founded by two epidemiologists who had this vision to use a new kind of ultraviolet light – a really intense UV light covering the entire germicidal spectrum – to deactivate viruses and bacteria that are known to cause hospital-acquired infections, which kill nearly 300 people in the U.S. every day. And that was before the pandemic,” said Melinda Hart, director of media relations at Xenex, whose germ-killing UV lights are mounted on robots that help automate disinfection.
“Hospitals can run the robots 24 hours a day to get as much of their facility disinfected as possible. As health care workers report to work, they want to know they’re going to the safest and cleanest possible environment.”
More than ever, hospitals and clinics are rigorously disinfecting to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 amongst patients and staff. Increasingly, robotic helpers make these important public health practices easier, according to Andy Molnar, vice president of the Americas at UVD Robots.
“I’m seeing a lot more robotic technology being used generally in health care,” said Molnar, whose company is manufacturing autonomous or semi-autonomous robotic disinfection machines that can kill SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Robots in hospitals are disinfecting and delivering supplies, triaging patients, and aiding in surgical procedures. According to Molnar, they’re often doing it with greater safety, efficiency, and reliability than their human counterparts.
“The validation of the workflow of a robot is a lot easier to be certain of,” he said.
That validation is especially important now, as the pandemic has made just about everyone more aware of disinfection practices – and more vigilant about them.
“We’ve seen a 600% increase in our business,” Hart said. “We think that the world has changed in the way people think about infectious disease and public health and that the world will operate a lot differently, even post-pandemic.”
Xenex leverages the cloud to ensure that its robots are efficiently working their way from patient rooms to bathrooms and from operating rooms to hospital lobbies.
“What’s really cool about our robots is that they’re all connected and report wirelessly to the cloud,” Hart said. “Hospitals or any facilities that are using our technology can be up to speed on where the robots are, what they’re doing and who’s using them.”
In some hospital wings, robots follow COVID-19 patients and disinfect every surface with which they come into contact.
“The whole world is now thinking about infectious disease and disease transmission, and how to provide safe environments so people can work, play and live,” Hart said. “There are tremendous opportunities outside of health care.”
Indeed, Xenex has begun seeing increased interest from hotels, schools, offices, airports and more.
A Patient’s New Best Friend?
During a trial run in Boston, a robotic dog named Spot triaged patients arriving at the emergency room.
“Usually, you would have a nurse or physician talk to someone who came into your emergency department and ask them what their complaints are, what’s going on and their basic history,” said Dr. Peter Chai, an emergency medicine physician and medical toxicologist. He used Spot at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Instead of having a person do that, we had a robotic system approach the patient and talk to them, and we used an iPad interface so that they could see us.”
Spot is one on a growing list of robotic products that facilitate telepresence – allowing patients to connect with others remotely. Another, called Ohmni Robot, helps patients safely connect with loved ones or health care providers from the comfort of their hospital room.
“We were interested during the COVID pandemic in how you could use a robotics system to do a lot of tasks that we as physicians normally do – like collecting vital signs, which is a fairly high-touch procedure or evaluating a patient,” Dr. Chai said. “The idea was that you could really minimize the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and potentially minimize exposure to people who may have COVID, thereby keeping the workforce a little safer.”
According to Dr. Chai, although it isn’t friendly and furry like a real dog, patients liked Spot and seemed to embrace it.
“Part of me thinks that in light of COVID and the public health work around social distancing, it might have increased the ability for someone to accept something like this,” he said. “There’s been a lot of work on [robotics] in the surgical world, like around robotic-assisted surgery, but the rest of medicine has seen less adoption. So I think this is a really exciting opportunity.”
A Helping Hand
As Dr. Chai indicated, robotics has perhaps had the greatest medical uptake in operating rooms. The da Vinci Surgical System, for example, assists with a variety of minimally-invasive procedures, including urological operations, hysterectomies and hernia repairs. It is controlled with extraordinary precision by onsite surgeons, according to the company.
Their success in surgery is proof that robots aren’t just novel and neat. In some critical applications, they’re also necessary. As the global pandemic eases and health care returns to its new normal, robots will likely continue to help hospitals care for the sick, communicate with patients and families, and do other crucial work that helps save lives.
Chase Guttman is a technology writer specializing in drones. He’s also an award-winning travel photographer, drone cinematographer, author, lecturer and instructor. His book, The Handbook of Drone Photography, was one of the first written on the topic and received critical acclaim. Find him at chaseguttman.com or @chaseguttman.
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