Robots in the World: How They’re Helping Humans Improve Hospitals

Our Robots in the World series looks at the large and small ways robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence are changing our lives. Stay tuned to see how humans are collaborating with robots to enhance everything from marine research to mathematics.

When you think about hospitals, do you worry about needles, blood, and scary machines? What about friendly machines that make sure you’re comfortable and help you recover faster?

Robots are becoming increasingly common in hospitals and are used in most departments and wards. Some help kids feel less afraid before a major procedure, while others complete the procedure themselves.

The next time you visit the hospital, keep an eye out for a few of these robots. Their helping hands could make your experience more enjoyable while keeping you healthy.

Robots Performing Surgery

One of the most popular ways robots help doctors is by performing surgery or making operations easier. These machines make it easier to see into a patient’s body and repair problems faster than human hands. So far, patients have been receptive to robots in the operating room and appreciate their precision and accuracy.

“Robotic surgery is currently in high demand with many types of patients because it is representative of the newest, most innovative technique,” Dr. Patrick Ross, Chairman of Surgery at ​Main Line Health (MLH) in Philadelphia, says. “No one wants to consider receiving last year’s best option when there are more advanced, and possibly more effective, alternatives available.”

However, many robots are only as effective as the surgeons using them. In order to understand how robots function in the ER, it’s important to learn the different types that surgeons work with. Graham Mackrell, managing director at Harmonic Drive UK, explains that there are three main types of robots helping surgeons around the world:

  • Autonomous systems which reproduce programmed motions, not unlike a washing machine.
  • Dependent systems that require the surgeon to maintain full control at all times.
  • Shared-control systems, which are a collaborative mixture of the two.

Robot development in hospitals tends to follow the same evolution as self-driving cars. Many surgeons and hospital managers still want human hands to be able to override a robot’s decision if necessary, but more advanced tools are helping robots troubleshoot errors and make the best choices for patients.  

Robots Reduce Recovery Time and Infection Rates

Along with embracing the latest methods and technology, robot surgeons have tangible benefits over traditional surgical methods.

“The robot has been a game-changer with kidney surgery,” Mayank Patel, MD, a urological surgeon, tells the Providence Health Team. “It allows us to do the operations we used to do as open procedures through a minimally invasive route.”

To understand how minimally-invasive procedures benefit patients, Dr. Patel specifically explains how robots make procedures easier:

  • Surgeons are able to remove small portions of organs, leaving the rest to function normally.
  • Instead of a 15-20 inch incision, there is only a small cut, which reduces pain, blood loss, and chance of infection.
  • Patients used to spend around a week in the hospital, now they only spend one or two days.

A child using a tablet during a hospital stay

Robots Helping Kids

Not all robots are found in operating rooms. Some robots help kids before they have a procedure or after surgery when they’re recovering. Children are often terrified of the hospital experience, they’re in pain and don’t understand why certain procedures need to be done. Hospital robots can reduce these fears and make doctors’ visits more enjoyable.

The team at RxRobots developed MEDi, or Medicine and Engineering Designing Intelligence. MEDi is a humanoid robot that works in the pediatric ward to make doctor’s visits less painful. The robot hangs out with kids in the waiting room and travels with them to various procedures. MEDi has one job: making the hospital experience less painful.

When kids have the support of a robot friend, they report 50 percent less pain during medical procedures. Parents have noticed that kids quickly forget about needles and scans because they’re so focused on the robot.

MEDi isn’t the only robot helping kids through difficult times at the hospital. The MIT Personal Robotics Group recently developed Huggable, a talking robotic teddy bear with more than 1,500 sensors, video cameras, microphones, and speakers.

“Under a pilot study, happening at Boston Children’s Hospital, sick tykes interact with Huggable in their rooms,” Sarah Fallon, senior editor at Wired, reports. “They shake his paw, tell him jokes (he claims to not know any), and play I Spy with him.”

While you might see a robot, most kids just see a teddy bear. Kids enjoy having a playmate they can also hug and hold onto if a procedure is scary.

Robots Connecting Kids With Friends and Family

While helping kids overcome a fear of needles and hospitals is a noble job for a robot, other pediatric robots are helping kids communicate with doctors, family members, friends, and teachers.

VGo Communications developed a robot that provides video communication and follows patients wherever they go. A few ways VGo robots help kids include:

  • Letting specialist doctors check in remotely.
  • Allowing parents and friends to call kids and offer words of encouragement.
  • Broadcasting lessons from the classroom for kids who are recovering from surgery.
  • Following kids to class to monitor their health when they’re back in school.

Not only does this robot provide emotional support through calls from family members, it also allows young patients to return to normal life sooner than they otherwise would have.    

A robotic treatment tool being used in the hospital

Robots Helping the Elderly

As the elderly population increases, more patients check into assisted living facilities or long-term hospices to care for their medical needs and physical limitations. This puts increased demand on the medical industry to provide care for aging patients. Some developers are turning to robots to help.

Carol Bradley Bursack is owner of Minding Our Elders and provides support for caregivers. She recently discussed furry pets like Paro (a robot seal) and Polly the Talking Parrot which provide emotional support to older nursing home residents, including Alzheimer’s patients. While Bradley Bursack believes robots will never fully replace caregivers and human interaction, she has seen how they can help ease the burden of family members and nursing staff.   

While these robots might still be a little stiff now, they’re rapidly improving.

“Over the past couple of years, elder care robot research and development has grown more conventional and cheaper, producing products with greater functionality and broader consumer acceptance,” Mark Hay, a technology enthusiast, writes at Good.

Hay explains that developers are working to make robots more personable and add companionship aspects to their products. For example, modern robots will play games and dance with the elderly, and even play trivia games to keep their minds sharp. This adds a level of entertainment to a machine and allows the patients to form emotional bonds.

Robots Becoming Home Doctors

While emotional support is important, these elder care robots have significant benefits to doctors and the health of their patients.

Susann Keohane, senior technologist at IBM Research, explains that her team is developing robots that provide companionship while also tracking safety and health of patients. These bots can detect when a stove is on or when someone has fallen down. Furthermore, they can read facial expressions, capture vital signs, and call for help.

If a companion robot can call for an ambulance or detect early signs of a problem, the patient can receive treatment faster. This increases their chances of survival while decreasing the amount of time needed for recovery. Suddenly a cute home robot turns into a life-saving hero.

A robot in an automated hospital pharmacy

Robots in Administration and Nursing

Robots are also working to reduce the burden on administrative staff. To make hospitals more welcoming and supplement staffing problems, the developers at SoftBank Robotics created Pepper, a humanoid robot that helps with reception duties. Pepper is the first robot used to greet people in a medical setting and helps guests check in through a computer on his chest.

Impressively, Pepper can identify whether he is speaking to a man, woman, or child and understand 20 languages. This is particularly helpful for staff if they can’t understand what a patient needs or if they need to quickly process several patients for the doctor to see.

Robots Serving as Orderlies and Nurses

The main goal of introducing robots to administrative positions is to reduce the burden on understaffed hospitals. To remove mindless tasks from human workers, the technology healthcare company Aethon developed TUG robots that complete delivery jobs, freeing up orderlies and nursing staff to focus on patient care.

According to Aethon, on an average week, a hospital with 200 beds serves:

  • More than 4,500 meals.
  • More than 70,000 lab specimens.
  • More than 83,000 pounds of linens.
  • Almost 10,000 pharmaceutical orders.

In total, orderlies walk a combined 370 miles each week, or the distance between Pittsburgh and New York City.

One common trend in hospital robotics development is that nurses aren’t eliminated because of technology. Rather, robots are able to help with more repetitive jobs so nurses can spend time with patients and better understand their needs.

“[Nurses] are often overwhelmed by physically and mentally daunting tasks, and the result is often an unpleasant experience for everyone involved,” Bertalan Meskó, MD, PhD and Director at The Medical Futurist Institute writes. “Robotic nurses will help carry this burden in the future…This way the staff has more energy to deal with issues that require human decision making skills and empathy.”

Few nurses enter the field because they like running used linens down the hall or delivering meals. With these tasks taken care of, human professionals can form stronger bonds with patients and focus on the parts of the job they love.

Robots Scheduling Appointments and Room Usage

While you might see a cleaning robot roaming the halls or stop to tell a joke to a humanoid robot in the pediatric ward, some robots are hard to find. More robots work behind the scenes, using artificial intelligence to improve hospital processes.

“Artificial intelligence is the power of a machine to copy intelligent human behavior,” Nate Wilson, technology specialist and recruiter, writes at ReferralMD. “When machine learning is applied to a task, it can learn how to perform the task and improve its accuracy, output, or speed over time.”

This is crucial in busy emergency rooms or hospitals that are packed with patients. Improved efficiency can save lives and reduce complications, making doctors and patients happier. Wilson lists a few ways AI is used in hospitals, including:

  • Smart scheduling with better appointment length estimates and cancellation predictions.
  • Estimated needs and uses for medication so hospital pharmacies are better staffed.
  • Better predictions for ER usage and time requirements.
  • Faster turnover of beds and patient rooms for more efficient use.

When patients enter and leave hospitals faster, doctors can treat more problems. This makes society healthier and reduces the spread of infection.

Robots on the Janitorial Staff

Robots are also joining the cleaning crews, making the disinfection process smoother and more effective. For example, the Xenex LightStrike Germ-Zapping Robot fights tiny aliens in the form of viruses and other microbial bugs with the help of ultraviolet light. The robot looks like any other cleaning tool, with four wheels and a handle, but it follows the cleaning crew and eliminates any bacteria that traditional methods are unable to reach.

This robot reduces the number of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) infections and health complications caused by exposure to germs in the hospital which reduces patient stays. While a cleaning robot might not sound as exciting as a surgery robot, it’s likely the Xenex LightStrike saves almost as many lives.

Janitorial Robots Free Up Cleaning Time

Thomas Boscher, general manager at Intellibot Robotics, writes that only half of hospital surfaces are properly cleaned. This is why his company worked to develop hospital floor cleaning robots that can navigate around carts, gurneys, and people.

“Previously, employees spent eight hours cleaning the corridors and lobby, covering up to 80 percent of the hospital’s flooring per shift,” he writes. “Now the machines cover these areas, providing the cleaning crew with over 2,900 hours per year to focus on other tasks.”

These cleaning robots are also used to entertain kids in the pediatric ward. One hospital in Hawaii wrapped them in funny faces so it looks like trains or school buses are zooming down the hall.