The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is turning to helper robots to relieve the burden on hospital staff, as the country's healthcare sector faces a vacancy rate of almost 10% and historic strikes. Joe Harrison, CEO of Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, says that pharmacy technicians and runners at his hospital take around 30,000 steps a day within the facility, hence the need for a helper bot to take care of tasks like medicine delivery.
The British firm behind the robot, the Academy of Robotics, says its self-driving technology was designed specifically for hospital use, with LiDAR and sonar tech used to help the penguin-looking "Milton" deliver medicine along specific routes. The trials for this feature are expected to begin this year, with feedback from the trial to decide whether to scale up across the NHS and introduce it to other hospitals around the country by 2023.
The CEO of the Academy of Robotics, William Sachiti, says robots like “Milton” will save time and cost for human staff, as one of the biggest problems in hospitals is "To-Take-Out (TTO)," where patients have been discharged but are waiting for their medicine.
Sometimes, it can be a 15-minute walk to get the medicine, with 30 patients waiting simultaneously. Sachiti believes robots like "Milton" can help safely deliver while humans focus on patients.
Hospitals worldwide are exploring using robot assistants to address the global issue of short staffing in the healthcare sector.
At Elmhurst Memorial Hospital in Chicago, two 5-foot-tall robots named "Moxi" have been running errands since June 2022. Equipped with a digital screen on the chest and an ID badge to open doors implanted in the robotic arm, they can do as much work as six human staff members.
According to the hospital, the two robots have made 1,800 deliveries each month, traveling nearly 1,600 km and saving hospital staff over 2 million steps. The developer, Texas-based company Diligent Robotics, says more hospitals across the country are waiting to test "Moxi."
In East Asia, Aeolus Robotics’s “Aeo” has been helping relieve the burden of nurses and runners at hospitals in Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The robot can drive up to 1 m/s and lift to 4 kg with one of its robotic arms, and with its newly-launched features, including an infrared camera, it can operate in full darkness.
The CEO of Aeolus Robotics, Dan Haddick, believes this will allow "Aeo" to take a load off of night shift staff, as it can go check on residents, make deliveries overnight, and work all night in the dark.
It is important to note that the robotics companies and the hospitals testing the robots all agree that these robots are not meant to replace human staff. Diane Butts, Clinical Manager of surgical oncology at Elmhurst Memorial, says that robots are not relied upon to interact with patients and that this is still the privilege and honor of human staff.
Sachiti says that robots are there to be tools to help people do their jobs and that the best machines should be there when needed and out of the way when not.
The deployment of helper robots in hospitals worldwide aims to address the issue of short staffing in the healthcare sector and relieve the burden on overworked hospital staff. The robots are designed to take care of tasks like medicine delivery and running errands, saving time and costs for human staff and allowing them to focus on patients.