Tech for good

Robots helping healthcare overcome COVID-19 challenges

With hospitals working above and beyond capacity, robots are helping reduce workloads, and risk to patients and healthcare professionals alike.

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There’s never a right time for a pandemic, but history is rich in examples of runaway infections that would have claimed myriad more lives had they happened a few years earlier. There’s the contribution of air travel to fighting the 1918 flu epidemic, the newly improved and affordable iron lung, allowing ward upon ward of children to survive polio in the 1950s and today, the surge of robots in healthcare since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Robots reduce opportunities for infection through person-to-person contact, allowing for more precise medical procedures and letting doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals focus their energies where they’re best used. Robots sanitize hospital surfaces, deliver food and medicines to patients, and assist surgeons in performing precise movements in restricting personal protective equipment (PPE) and more.

With demand for hospital beds at levels not seen before in peacetime, robots can relieve the burden on human labor of tasks like cleaning and disinfecting. As well as completing the work efficiently, robots don’t – unlike humans – need variety in their work to stay focused. And with frontline health workers at high risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, robots reduce risk by acting as a shield between staff and patients.

While COVID-19 dominates health headlines, emergency and elective surgeries continue. Surgeons are adapting their practices to respond to the infection risk, and robots have an answer in the operating theatre too.

Delivering medicines and food with hospital robots

How one hospital is using an autonomous robot to deliver medication, saving pharmacy technicians time.

Hospitals started trialing the autonomous robot TUG – capable of a range of logistical tasks such as delivering food, heavy objects and linen – as early as 2011. TUG has been a huge success, with one healthcare facility estimating their 25 TUGs will perform 1,300 trips a day.

TUG’s makers, Aethon, report an increase in its use of 30 percent since the pandemic began. TUG’s contribution to fighting COVID-19 includes tasks like delivering fresh PPE to staff and specimens to the lab, but perhaps most importantly, saving hospital staff much tiring walking at a time when they’re more than rushed off their feet.

Disinfecting with drones

Ivan Stamatovski is Chief Technical Officer of Easy Aerial Smart Security, based in Brooklyn, US. The international aerospace and security company specializes in developing robotic systems that automate monitoring and surveillance using smart autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs,) better known as drones.

Stamatovski says his business has seen a huge increase in demand for drones. They’re being used to spray disinfectant and deliver food and medicines to areas without easy transport links. Easy Aerial is also building customized drones for delivering medical supplies, mostly used around Japan’s islands.

Overcoming hand tremors for smaller, faster surgery

Based in Baltimore, US, Galen Robotics is developing a single-platform solution to aid surgeons across several surgical disciplines. They eliminate hand tremors, letting surgeons do more precise, minimally invasive surgical actions. John Hopkins University approached Galen in 2016 to commercialize their robotics research through the Robotic ENT Microsurgical System (REMS.) Since then, they’ve expanded on the same robotic technology. “We plan on getting Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval next year and then we’ll go into sales. Medical students are currently getting training on virtual reality,” says Galen’s President and CEO, Bruce Lichorowic.

Galen wants to offer their robots on a service model to negate healthcare institutions’ high outlay costs. When offered as-a-service, they believe the greater versatility and wider application of surgical robots could spur a new demand level.

The new breed of surgical robot can also reduce the time needed to perform a procedure, likely leading to fewer surgical complications, shorter hospital stays and fewer readmissions. It will be an attractive proposition for hospitals, doctors and insurance companies.

These new surgical robotics come at a time when hospitals are on the lookout for game-changing technology. Combined with the as-a-service model, Galen hopes to bring surgical robots to hospitals and care centers that could not previously afford the capital and operating costs.

COVID-19 brings new surgery techniques, robots follow

Because of COVID-19, surgeons are now performing laryngeal surgeries with longer instruments, full face guards and a gown. All these limit a surgeon’s dexterity. “We see demand for robotic solutions that improve dexterity or ability. With the Da Vinci robotic surgical assistant, one person can operate four or five laparoscopic rods alone during a surgery,” says Dave Saunders, Chief Technical Officer and Co-founder of Galen Robotics.

Galen believes the more patients their robots can take out of open surgery and into computer-aided minimally invasive procedures, the better for patients and practitioners. The robot memorizes the path, such as a biopsy needle entering the brain, and movements surgeons make, repeating these to avoid structures.

Robots teach through experiential learning

California-based ZeroUI developed an integrated experiential learning platform, Ziro, that delivers immersive learning using groundbreaking internet of things (IoT) robotics technology. Ziro can be configured and controlled using an app or hand gestures.

“Plummeting hardware costs and breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI) have been driving an increase in robotics adoption in many industries over the last few years, but the pandemic accelerated demand in healthcare because of labor shortage and the need for touchless delivery. Robots are disinfecting areas, and delivering medicines and supplies in hospitals,” says Raja Jasti, CEO and Founder of ZeroUI.

Operating remotely by robot could save lives

Every year in the US, some 1.4 million patients are transferred between hospitals, mostly for treatment not available where they were first admitted. These patients face significantly higher risk, staying in hospital three times as long and dying at rates nearly twice that of patients who were not transferred but received the same treatment. One US study found patient transfer between healthcare facilities costs around 6,000 US dollars by road or twice the cost by air, plus extra for each mile traveled.

In future, remote control of robots and connection through 5G high-speed internet will likely become more sophisticated and ubiquitous.

It’s possible surgeons could operate using robots not just from another room but from another city or country. This could dramatically improve access to surgery for patients in remote locations and reduce transfer risks.

Robotic technology is at a ‘sweet spot’ in its development and adoption. The pandemic has changed our relationship to risk in social and medical settings, opening minds to technology that’s ready to make lives easier. While relatively simple technology like robot cleaners and sterilizing drones let the human workforce use their skills where they’re most needed, more intricate technologies like surgical robots are giving surgeons a new level of control. With robots in healthcare, we can look forward to a future of more options and reduced risks.

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About authors

Kavitha Yarlagadda is based in India. She has a master’s in Environmental Science and writes on the environment, health and technology.