Automation in Healthcare: The Robotics Revolution
When it comes to automation in healthcare, the word “robotics” typically brings to mind images of robot-assisted surgery. But why should the operating room (OR) get all the glory? Hospitals are deploying robots in many other ways, from drones delivering blood products to humanoids greeting patients.
The bounds of automation are endless inside and around the hospital. With widespread labor shortages, continued supply chain disruptions, and growing patient desire for a more consumer-like healthcare experience, here are some ways robots and automation in healthcare are coming to the rescue.’
Last Mile Fulfillment
As consumers of retail goods, we have come to expect products to land in our hands within days, if not hours. Take for instance driverless cars for food delivery on college campuses. While on-demand pizza at 3 a.m. may feel like a lifesaver to a hungry student, in healthcare, immediate delivery of blood products or critical medicines to a patient is a true life-and-death scenario.
Zipline, an instant logistics and delivery provider that began transporting blood products via drone to patients in remote areas of Rwanda in 2016, is now partnering with Intermountain Healthcare for drone delivery of prescriptions and medical products to patients’ yards in the Salt Lake Valley area.
Logistics company DHL also plays in the healthcare last mile fulfillment space. One of its first pilot programs was delivering medications via drone from mainland Germany to the remote island of Juist in the North Sea. Before, the island’s residents had to wait for a ferry or airplane to make a scheduled delivery, whereas now, drones can bring critical medicines 24/7.
Another successful example of automation in healthcare is drone delivery use by Raleigh-based hospital WakeMed, which has partnered with UPS Flight Forward (UPSFF) and drone manufacturer Matternet to transport blood and urine daily between the hospital and a primary testing lab.
In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has stringent laws around drone operator certification and line of sight, which has slowed progress in drone delivery across many industries. But successful drone usage by health systems such as Intermountain and WakeMed shows these hurdles can be overcome if safety requirements are met.
Even with surgical robots like da Vinci, a human is behind the scenes controlling the actions. While we aren’t likely to see a robotic OR team autonomously performing procedures anytime soon (but never say “never”), robots can automate manual, labor-intensive tasks on the perimeters of care delivery, freeing up clinicians to focus on their primary responsibility – the patient.
For example, Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR), headquartered in Denmark, offers robots that deliver patient meals from a hospital’s kitchen to patient rooms (and return empty trays) and collect dirty linens throughout a healthcare facility for laundering.
Other robots are designed for situational interactions with humans in the hospital environment. Humber River Hospital in Toronto has employed RobotLAB’s Pepper hospitality robot to greet pediatric patients and their families upon arrival and comfort them at the bedside during treatment. The child-sized, humanoid robot is programmed to answer kids’ common questions about surgery and can even be customized to educate individual patients about their specific surgical procedures.
Medical/surgical supply management is a huge burden on clinicians today that could likely be performed by robots in the future. Instead of a nurse having to walk to a storage area and retrieve supplies, a robot containing high-use items could travel patient care floors or even tag along behind caregivers to offer up supplies on demand.
One challenge that arises when hospitals implement different robots for different functions in patient areas is how to coordinate their movements, so they don’t get in the way of care delivery. For example, a robot programmed to travel throughout the nursing units to perform a task, let’s say mopping floors, could conceivably tie up an elevator at a time when a patient needs transport to the intensive care unit (ICU). Hospital stakeholders must consider issues like this as robots and automation in healthcare become more pervasive.
In the wake of pandemic-related supply chain disruptions, more health systems are taking greater control over their supply chains through the establishment of consolidated service centers (CSC) where they can house direct bulk buys from manufacturers. Looking at the success of retail in leveraging warehouse automation for decades, healthcare is turning to robots to help manage supplies in their CSCs.
For both retail customers and patients, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to fulfillment. The staff in a retail warehouse must pick/pack the specific products contained in a customer’s e-commerce order, while those in a health system’s CSC must pick the items a clinician ordered for an individual patient. Massachusetts-based Locus Robotics offers autonomous mobile robots (AMR) that work alongside warehouse staff members, visually guiding them to the right pick locations to boost productivity, efficiency, and accuracy.
With healthcare in its early days of warehouse automation, and costs a constant concern, Locus Robotics offers a scalable, cost-effective way for health systems to begin deploying robots in their supply chain operations. Through the company’s Robots-as-a-Service (RaaS) model, a healthcare organization can add AMRs to their CSC as they need them and scale their robot workforce up or down as needs change.
Maintaining adequate inventory is important to the success of any organization, but the implication of shortages is far more critical in healthcare versus other industries. In retail, running out of a popular t-shirt might cause some grumbling among consumers. In healthcare, clinicians not having access to a cancer drug could mean a patient goes without life-saving treatment.
Ware, a San Francisco provider of automated inventory control solutions, has developed cycle counting drones that fly around a warehouse following preprogrammed flight paths taking pictures of inventory. When the drone returns to its charging “nest,” it uploads data to Ware’s cloud-based software, which leverages AI to extract barcodes and identify inventory anomalies.
The implications of this automation technology in healthcare are staggering from a supply management perspective, especially when it comes to highly regulated products like narcotics. Drug products like these are typically stored in a locked cage within the CSC where only authorized staff members can access them, and all movement of drugs in and out of the storage is closely tracked.
Imagine a drone that could fly up over and into the cage to perform an automated cycle count, versus a human having to do it manually. Eliminating the human factor would certainly reduce the risk of drug diversion and at the same time, boost the efficiency and accuracy of inventory management workflows.
Speaking of efficiency, what if these drones were paired with RFID technology? Within minutes, they could fly through a warehouse capturing information from RFID-tagged supplies. In theory, drones could offer healthcare supply chain leaders not only real-time inventory levels but also critical information such as products nearing expiry and those that have been recalled and must be pulled to avoid patient harm.
Healthcare has just begun to dip a toe into process automation, and it is proving to be not only beneficial but achievable. Two decades ago, maybe even 10 years ago, if someone told a health system CEO that drones would be flying around their campuses transporting items, or robots moving supplies around in their warehouse or delivering meals to patients, they’d likely see it as science fiction.
But here we are on the cusp of 2023 with automation in healthcare rising and robots as our reality helping to alleviate many of the challenges faced today and opening the door to countless other applications in and around patient care settings.
About the Author:
Guy Courtin is a seasoned supply chain expert with decades of experience in the technology and supply chain space. Currently serving as Tecsys’ vice president of industry and advanced technology, he has held leadership roles at 6 River Systems (a Shopify company), Infor Retail, and i2 Technologies (now Blue Yonder), and served as an industry analyst at Constellation Research, SCM World (Now Gartner), and Forrester Research.