When a loved one has an emergency, requires surgery or needs in-depth treatment, they are likely to be seen at a hospital. For people who are not caregivers or in the healthcare profession, a hospital is a place we visit only occasionally – and try to leave as soon as possible. We may not see everything that goes on to make it possible to care for our family member or friend.
In fact, many aspects of a hospital’s operation are not visible to the public and are never portrayed on TV shows, but are critical to providing the level of service that we expect. For starters, hospitals are massive logistics operations: they must receive deliveries, manage inventory and move materials around. In addition, hospitals prepare food in large kitchens and deliver it multiple times per day; manage linens and laundry; deal with and dispose of biohazard material. The number of tasks in support of the main health care activities goes on and on.
Take for example San Francisco General Hospital, which serves around 100,000 patients each year. It is also a Level 1 Trauma Center treating more than 3,900 trauma patients annually. With a staff of over 5,000, hundreds of beds, a 40,000 square foot emergency room, 13 operating rooms, and thousands of people coming in and out every day, the hospital is like a small city unto itself.
While many industries have been experiencing labor shortages over the last few years, health care and related activities have been especially hard hit. Besides the obvious risks from COVID-19, the mental strain has stretched everyone to the limit. This has brought a whole new meaning to the concept of dull, dirty and dangerous tasks, which are the hallmark of activities that are ripe for automation.
Robotics in healthcare is often associated with surgery devices, which are controlled by doctors and allow them to perform many types of complex procedures with more precision, flexibility and control than is possible with conventional techniques. However, a new generation of smart robots is now entering healthcare settings like hospitals to take care of the much less glamorous, but just as essential, tasks.
Modern autonomous robots that use sensors and artificial intelligence can operate side by side with hospital staff, even in environments that include the public or patients. Rather than replacing people, these robots allow staff to offload specific tasks, helping increase their productivity so they can serve more patients.
Entrepreneurs and roboticists are going after unique needs, moving linens from the hospital rooms to the laundry, bringing food to patient rooms and helping dispose of hazardous materials. Relay Robotics can handle autonomous delivery in hospitals, even taking elevators and navigating in busy hallways to take medications from the pharmacy to nurses stations or even a patient’s bedside or bringing specimens to the lab. In doing so, they not only give back all the time that would have been required to pick up and deliver items, but they do so with increased safety and security.
While on the topic of security, mobile robots can patrol parking lots and lobbies to make sure the flow of people and goods remains as safe as possible. Companies such as Ohmni Labs and UBTECH offer disinfection robots today, using powerful ultraviolet lights without a human driving it, which is critical since UV-C is harmful for people. Cleaning floors in areas like lobbies and cafeterias can be handled by smart floor scrubbers, such as those produced by global leader Karcher.
The opportunities for automation go well beyond the confines of the hospital. Long distance drones by Zipline have been used for years to air-drop medicines to remote hospitals in Africa. Emotional support robots for elderly (Labrador Systems) or children with autism (Embodied) help improve their wellness, handle tasks at home and develop social skills.
Ongoing innovations are likely to bring additional benefits, whether it’s exoskeletons for staff to be able to lift patients, secure home-delivery of medications or telepresence robots loaded with temperature and other sensors to enable specialists to see patients in remote areas.
Without a doubt, robots can enhance the experiences of both patients and caregivers, and this trend will only accelerate in the coming years
Florian is an accomplished business leader and author, with hands-on experience bringing innovative products to market. As InOrbit’s CEO and co-founder, Florian leads strategy, fundraising and go-to-market activities. He is passionate about raising awareness around the new category of RobOps, sharing his compelling vision for the evolution of robotics and the future of work. He is also a co-founder of the Robot Operations Group, a community-led organization of experts in scaling robot deployments. Florian is an investor, advisor, board member, and mentor to young startup founders.