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Published On Feb 17, 2016

Technology

Robots on the Wards

Brian Herriot on building a robot-friendly hospital

When UCSF Medical Center launched a new facility in 2015, Brian Herriot’s job, as director of operations planning, was to figure out how the 289-bed hospital could deliver the greatest number of services given its limited space and workforce. The solution, he concluded, was robots—lots of robots.

The new Mission Bay location is now one of the world’s most automated hospitals. One team of 27 robots helps carry things: food, medicine, surgical tools, lab samples and garbage. More specialized robots assist physicians in surgery, while robots in the pharmacy help dispense and distribute pills.

This automation of hospital work may be happening next to Silicon Valley, but its future appears to be global. Xenex robots, which help in disinfection, are used in close to 300 hospitals across the United States. According to industry estimates, at least 1,000 supply-delivery robots are already being used in hospitals nationwide. And while there may be questions about the suitability of machines for the uniquely human enterprise of helping patients, Herriot has hope for these workers of the future.

Q: What jobs do robots handle at Mission Bay?

A: The most widespread use is delivering various things. The robots bring medications from the pharmacy to hospital units, retrieve pathology specimens, move instruments from sterile rooms to operating rooms, and move food and garbage.

Q: Do the same robots handle garbage and sterile instruments?

A: Some pathology robots—which pick up biological specimens and deliver them to a lab for testing—are specialized, with built-in, highly specific containers for samples. But there is cross-usage of other robots. Six robots carry food by day, for example, and then distribute clean linens at night.

Q: Menial hospital jobs pay relatively well. Has bringing in robots been controversial from a labor standpoint?

A: We were building a new facility, so we didn’t have to let anyone go to use these robots. But it’s certainly an issue in hospitals that might look to replace human workers. In an ideal situation, because robots are at the low end of the skill spectrum, everyone would move up the food chain. Having human workers simply push things isn’t maximizing their potential.

Q: But has that really happened?

A: When we bring in robots in this hospital system, we do our best to move people into higher-skilled jobs. Our most-worked robots—the ones hauling garbage—need “ambassadors” to oversee the jobs and make sure that the robots work well with the rest of the staff. Three people moved out of custodial jobs into these positions. They’re doing that instead of pushing garbage.

Q: What other kinds of robots work in the hospital?

A: We have a fully automated pharmacy, where robots pull pills and assemble medications for patients. Removing some of the potential for human error has helped cut the error rate to basically nothing. It’s happening behind the scenes, so most people don’t know the robots are there.

Q: What kinds of problems do robots encounter?

A: If your facility lacks automatic doors, that can be a problem because robots can’t open doors on their own. If you don’t plan for that, it’s expensive to add those doors. We had to install a fair number of automatic doors after construction—but everyone benefits. You also need wide hallways, and adequate storage, to ensure that the hallways stay clear, and plenty of elevator capacity. Oh, and a good, reliable wireless system, which robots use to communicate.

Q: How do people—patients and staff—react to the robots?

A: Kids especially love them, and this facility is primarily a children’s hospital. We’re now decorating some robots to look like Pixar characters (with help from Pixar, of course). We see kids playing follow the leader with the robots and talking to each other about them. As for staff, it’s just becoming routine. It’s the new way of doing things. The ambassadors don’t want to go back to their old jobs pushing garbage.

 

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