Safety

Will droids take over at hospitals?

Hospital Safety Insider, May 26, 2016

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In a world increasingly populated by autonomous vacuum cleaners, package-delivering drones, and soon-to-be self-driving cars, it's no surprise that more hospitals are going high-tech and employing automated resources such as robots to help handle the workload. Everywhere you look, healthcare organizations seem to be relying more on automatons, automated systems, and digital technology to free up human resources to provide better patient care and cut costs.

At the brand new, state-of-the-art UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay in San Francisco, for example, a fleet of 27 "TUG" robots shuttle compartments and carts around the huge complex, which include soiled sheets and medical waste. The new Humber River Hospital in Toronto, meanwhile, boasts of being North America's first "fully digital" medical facility, featuring robots that mix drugs, deliver goods to a patient's bedside and administer medication, automated kiosks and touchpads for patients, and a digital management system that oversees on-site pharmaceuticals.

And in other medical centers, phlebotomist robots like Veebot draw blood from patients, the da Vinci Surgical System uses robotic technology to aid surgeons in performing complex surgeries, and automated systems handle hospital laundry, HVAC controls, lighting operations, and security access controls.

These are all handy advances in technology, but at the same time, they take humans out of the equation. While it's unlikely we will ever see the day when the nurse, physician, phlebotomist, or pharmacist will be replaced completely by robots, one has to wonder how safe the advancements are. Who is making sure that the robots are doing the right thing? What if they malfunction? Can they be hacked?

Some hospital security experts are encouraged by the robotic and digital amenities in facilities like Humber River Hospital. But, they say, only time will tell if this technology is worth the investment and potential risks.

"If capital investment can free up human equivalent employees who can be reassigned to other activities, that could improve patient care and reduce costs," says Bruce Binder, MPH, CEM, CEO of Rochester, Washington-based Global Vision Consortium, an emergency management consulting firm specializing in healthcare.

Similar robotic technologies have been applied in other industries for years-including at Santa Rita Jail in Oakland, California, which uses automated guided vehicles (AGV) to deliver food and supplies throughout the prison. Earlier versions of robot transporters were used in several large hospitals in the 1980s and 1990s, Binder adds, although the technology was less robust and didn't have some of the newer safety features, such as the ability to stop when it detects something blocking its path.

"Everything looks nice and, in theory, sounds fascinating," says Dan Birbeck, captain of the Dallas County Hospital District Police Department in Dallas, who also lauds the automated innovations, but suggests there could be potential problems. "But if the hardware crashes, which happens in many systems, what kind of resources are pulled away from patient care to manage the issue? And what is the alternate method to continue operations without the functioning hardware? What happens during a disaster and electrical utility failure?"

This is an excerpt from the monthly healthcare safety resource Briefings on Hospital Safety. Subscribers can read the rest of the article here. Non-subscribers can find out more about the journal, its benefits, and how to subscribe by clicking here.
 



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